Never Underestimate the Power of a Letter

The WSJ fixes their language.

Scragged tries to make the point that words have meaning.  We've pointed out that in the specific case of battling terrorism, words have great meaning and if we don't even know what we're talking about, we won't accomplish much.

One of our pet linguistic peeves is careless media who say that a group of terrorists has "executed a hostage."  This grants the terrorists an authority that they do not possess.  Only a government can execute somebody.  Truth in reporting would instead say that a kidnap victim has been murdered.

One of our readers took our point to heart, wrote a letter to the editor of the <>Wall Street Journal, and forwarded the correspondence to  This is what our reader told the Journal:

Subject: PLEASE be more careful of the words you use. Criminals don't "execute" people, they "murder" them.

On P A1 2nd column of your June 28-29 issue, you said, "Pakistani militants executed two Afghan prisoners..."

ONLY governments are able to execute people.  ONLY governments are able to hold prisoners.  Criminal gangs hold kidnap victims whom they murder, as your Mr. Pearl was kidnapped and murdered.  Despite what the Muslim Militants say, Mr. Pearl was not executed, he was murdered, just as these Afghans were murdered.

This distinction is important - by implicitly recognizing the Pakistani militants as a government, you are giving aid and comfort to our enemies.   There is more discussion of this issue here:

It's really too bad that our newspapers aren't more careful how they use words.  Words have meaning.

Ah, how sweet it is to be quoted! The Journal's reply came from their stylebook editor:

Your note about the use of "execute" in the Journal was referred to me.

Your point is well taken. The word is sometimes used too loosely as a synonym for "kill" or "murder."

We'll remind the staff to stick to our stylebook rule that to "execute" is to "kill in compliance with a military or judicial order."

Thank you for taking the time to write to us about your concern.

It's interesting that the Journal's stylebook already had the rule.  This distinction has been around for a long time; Wikipedia got it right.  Who knows?  Lesser media might get on board if some of our readers wrote them about the Journal's pronouncement.  Maybe we can make a difference!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Both political sides use whatever terms will aid their agenda relative to a particular situation. Conservatives routinely use the phrase "the war on terrorism" yet most conservatives say that Islamic terrorists have no country and obey no conventional rules of war - thereby denying them coverages allotted by the Geneva Convention. That seems to be large double standard. Either we're policing criminals who have no war rights, or we are fighting a "war on terror" with an army and all the traditional rules of engagement. How am I going wrong?
July 15, 2008 7:48 AM
You raise an excellent point, Davis S. Scragged has explored exactly this question in a series "Where Do Little Terrorists Come From"; the first installment may be found here:
July 15, 2008 8:47 AM
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