Over the weekend, I saw a news report that referred to a ‘fatal drowning.’ That left me wondering if there’s another kind.
What’s a “fatal drowning”? One apparently happened in South Carolina over the weekend. That’s according to one news story. A second story on the same tragedy carried this curious headline:
13-year-old dies morning after drowning in Midlands lake, SC coroner says
I don’t have the official statement from the coroner in question, but I suspect that’s not exactly what the coroner said.
The story is a tragedy and I don’t mean to make light of the situation. But when articles — and any type of communication — is written in this manner, it can distract people from the point you’re trying to make.
This is a great example of poor wording that leads to questions rather than a focus on the victim and the suffering the victim’s family and friends are no doubt going through.
So what constitutes a drowning?
Believe it or not, there seems to be a bit of disagreement. If I search drown at Merriam-Webster, the applicable definition is to “suffocate by submersion, especially in water.” If I cross-check to suffocate, it defines that word as stopping the respiration of (as by strangling or asphyxiation) or to deprive of oxygen).
As a general rule, when you deprive a human of oxygen or stop their respiration, that results in death. There’s clearly the implication that drowning would be fatal.
At the same time, the dictionary disappoints by not coming right out and stating that drowning means death.
The Associated Press Stylebook, which newsrooms around the globe rely on as a style manual, makes the implication a little more clear. In the latest edition of the AP Stylebook, it takes on the word drowned and the phrase was drowned:
If a person suffocates in water or other fluid, the proper statement is that the individual drowned. To say that someone was drowned implies that another person caused the death by holding the victim’s head under the water.
That part about the implication that another person caused “the death” makes it clear that as far as the AP is concerned, someone who drowns has died.
The website Healthline makes it much more straightforward:
Drowning is a form of death by suffocation. Death occurs after the lungs take in water. This water intake then interferes with breathing. The lungs become heavy, and oxygen stops being delivered to the heart. Without the supply of oxygen, the body shuts down.
There you go. Death by suffocation. If person doesn’t die or is resuscitated, it’s not a drowning. It’s a near-drowning.
Simple. Easy to understand.
Enter a new problem
Things mostly went along fine with the assumption that drowning meant death. But then along came a new little wrinkle in that understanding. It arrived in the form of a bulletin from the World Health Organization. Published on Nov. 10, 2005, it proposed a new definition of the term drowning.
In fact, it actually suggested three meanings. The first is the fatal drowning we all know about. The other two types, however, are non-fatal drownings. The second type is a drowning which does not result in death but does carry long-term health problems. The third is a drowning that does not result in death and causes no long-term effects.
Click the link above if you want to get bogged down in the medical-speak. In a nutshell, it explains that someone can die in the water — the old drowning definition. But it also argues that someone can be rescued and resuscitated but that if their lungs are not properly cleared of water, what is known as a “dry drowning” could occur. One can still drown because of the effects of too much water in the lungs which impairs respiration and begins to cause the rest of the body to shut down. It can happen hours after they’re out of the water when they otherwise seem OK.
So what’s a writer to do?
You can get bogged down in technicalities, but a communicator also needs to spend at least a little time thinking about how the average reader will process the information you present.
That’s why I have to agree with the AP Style decree that drowning means death. If someone doesn’t die, it’s a near-drowning. Period.
If someone suffers a “dry drowning,” I would say that. If the official sources — the coroner’s report, for example — doesn’t specify whether the death was a delayed result of water in the lungs, I would say the person died after being pulled from the water. That in itself implies they didn’t die in the water. Until the official cause of death is provided, all we can do is explain what we know.
Someone who is alive when they’re pulled from the water but who dies hours or even a day or more later because of what happened when they were in the water may qualify for the medical definition of “drowning.” But it’s only going to confuse your reader when you present it that way.
Sometimes, a writer has to rely on common sense to make sure what you’re communicating is understood by everyone.