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Grammar

‘Drown to Death’? A Little Redundant, Wouldn’t You Say?

A closeup shot of a water droplet123RF

My mom sent me an email the other day with a newspaper headline referring to a man who managed to ‘drown to death.’

My mom called me the other day and told me to check my email. She sent me a link to the newspaper in her area that carried this unfortunate headline: “Columbia man drowned to death in Lake Murray over the weekend, SC coroner says”.

I call it unfortunate because it’s a glaring error of redundancy.

Before I jump too far into this, let me get one thing clear: I’m not trying to pick on newspapers or journalists in general. Someone will surely read this and react with something like, “They should fire that copyeditor.”

The sad fact of life these days is there’s at least a chance the copyeditor — or at least some of them — were fired a long time ago. Some newspapers still have copyeditors on staff. Television stations have never — at least not in my time in the business — had a role that was exclusively a “copyeditor.”

Newspapers do have editors and TV news teams do have executive producers. Their job involves catching these mistakes that others may miss. But their jobs also involve several other things that might, on the wrong day, take up too much of their time. When that happens, mistakes slip through.

I’m not excusing such mistakes. They shouldn’t happen. Ever.

But they do. When I make one, believe me, no one is harder on me about it than I am! But while I’m still beating myself up about it, I at least try to keep in perspective how staffing has changed over the years.

‘Drowned to death’ is one fatality too many

Merriam-Webster does list a few definitions for drown, but most refer to a more figurative “drenching.” The pertinent definition that applies in the above use is this:

to suffocate by submersion especially in water

If you drown, you die. That’s a well-understood meaning.

Consider this recent headline from the New York Post, which Merriam-Webster gives as an example of the word’s usage:

They are presumed drowned but their bodies have not been found.

John Annese, New York Daily News, 23 June 2024

I point to the word bodies as proof that the word drowned clearly means “death.” If it didn’t, the second half of the sentence wouldn’t say their bodies hadn’t been found. It would say they haven’t been found, which would presume they might still be alive.

If their survival might be considered possible, they wouldn’t be considered “presumed drowned.”

In headlines, we often see phrases like “shot to death” or “beaten to death.” One can be shot or beaten and survive.

But drowning means — and is generally assumed to mean — death.

So the “drown to death” part of that headline is one death too many. It should have read, simply, “Columbia man drowned in Lake Murray over the weekend, SC coroner says”.

The second hint about the fatality, obviously, is that a coroner is involved. They don’t tend to investigate cases in which there isn’t a fatality, after all.

I’m happy to report that the headline was updated. By the time I clicked through to the link that Mom sent, the errant phrase had been removed. I wish someone had caught it before it went out, of course. But I give them a point for fixing it.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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