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Suspect usage

AFTER MORE THAN two weeks of being called a ''person of interest" in the shooting deaths of his wife and baby in Hopkinton, Neil Entwistle was promoted to ''suspect" status Thursday, when Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley announced he had been arrested in London on murder charges.

Suspect we all know, but what is this person of interest? It depends on who's using the rapidly spreading term. Some say the label encompasses both potential perps and possible witnesses to a crime; others deride it as a pointless euphemism, just as potentially ruinous to an innocent bystander's reputation as the suspect tag is. Still others insist that person of interest--despite years of service in the FBI--is just another outbreak of political correctness.

But if the nation's prosecutors are backing away from suspect, it's probably not because they've gone soft on crime, but because they want to avoid compromising their cases with prejudicial language. And suspect, despite its simple everyday definition--"one suspected of a crime or other offense"--can be a complicated word, especially for journalists.

Bryan Garner, an attorney who writes language guides for lawyers as well as civilians, is among the usage counselors who say a suspect should mean only a specific person. To say a suspect punched a man and fled is ''absurd (if there is no suspect at that time)," he writes in Garner's Modern American Usage; the unknown malefactor is an assailant (or rapist or shooter, as the case may be). Once a suspect has been fingered, though, he's entitled to the presumption of innocence. Now, saying ''the suspect fled" is ''potentially false and libelous." (Someone fled, but you haven't proved it was this suspect.)

Journalists often ignore the absurdity, though, and call unidentified miscreants suspects--perhaps because the word simply sounds more abstract (hence legally safer) than robber or rapist. And suspect can effectively telegraph ''bad actor" when you're describing a crime that doesn't have a short name like ''mugger" or ''pickpocket." For instance, a report last week on said a teenager was forced to rob a bank by ''two suspects who implied they had a weapon." These were unidentified criminals, not named ''suspects," but ''men" would have sounded much wimpier.

But this loose use of suspect to mean both ''unknown perpetrator of a known crimes" and ''accused but not convicted person" inevitably muddies its meaning and blurs its presumption of innocence. Person of interest may be bland and bureaucratic, but unlike suspect, it doesn't imply more than it should.

For journalists, the adjectival ''suspected," like ''alleged" and ''accused," is even more problematic--and this is no new wave of political correctness: Half a century ago, Theodore Bernstein, then the newsroom usage patrolman at The New York Times, was warning reporters to avoid the likes of ''accused spy" and ''suspected intruder."

''A wrecked plane is an actual plane that has been wrecked," he wrote in ''Watch Your Language" (1958), but a ''suspected intruder" is different: It means not a kind of intruder but a person accused of intruding. Readers may interpret ''suspected intruder" as a description of an intruder, says Bernstein, because of its resemblance to phrases like ''armed intruder" and ''denim-clad intruder."

Outside of journalism, this is a ridiculous claim. ''A suspected gambler is idiomatic," writes Kenneth G. Wilson in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, ''and almost everyone would understand this to mean 'a person suspected of gambling."' It's only ''finical protectors of the language" who believe it could mean, say, a gambler suspected of some other offense, like carjacking or safecracking.

In this case, however, those finical folks are not the usual nitpickers but working journalists, who still preach the Bernstein doctrine. For instance, Doug Fisher, a journalism teacher at the University of South Carolina, makes the case against the suspected robber locution on the school's blog; even robbery suspect is better, he says, since it puts the emphasis on the accurate suspect rather than the unproven robber.

The distinction sounds trivial, unless you're a suspect. But if you were innocent, would you rather be the ''embezzling suspect" or the ''suspected embezzler"? Or, better than either, ''suspected of embezzlement"? Grammar and usage allow all three, but when the context is crime, a little journalistic caution goes a long way.

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