Answers to Questions About Referring to Death
Here are three questions about how to treat references to people who have died, and my responses.
1. For how long after someone’s death is it necessary and/or appropriate to use “the late” to describe them? I know we don’t say “the late Ludwig van Beethoven,” but what about a board chairman who died twelve years ago?
There’s no standard rule, but in objective, dispassionate content, late should generally be used only a few years after someone’s death. (A widow or widower referring to a deceased spouse, however, gets a lifetime pass.)
2. If I refer to someone’s having died in 2001, do I refer to the person in the same sentence as “the late John Smith,” for example, or is that redundant?
Late is redundant to an explicit reference to a person’s death, and the objective reference is preferable to late. For example, “The project was funded by a bequest from the late John Smith, who died in 2001” is redundant, and “The project was funded by a bequest from John Smith, who died in 2001” is preferable to “The project was funded by a bequest from the late John Smith,” because the former sentence is more specific.
3. Is it objectionable in formal writing for the general public to refer explicitly to death — i.e., are euphemisms like “passed away” truly preferable to died?
On the contrary: Died is preferable to euphemisms like “passed away.” In informative text, use straightforward language; readers appreciate clear, specific wording and don’t need to be coddled with tiptoeing generalities.
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