Tuesday, 26 February 2013

40 People Killed After Crash ...

What has happened to the use of "after" in UK news bulletins? We often hear something like: "40 people died after" or even "were killed after a train crash ..."

What?! It suggests to me that the rescue workers went around putting badly injured victims out of their misery. I hope this doesn't seem a facetious point or a bad taste joke. It is a serious query about usage. Also, I feel that newsreaders (and writers) have a special duty to be careful about tragic events. This means that some gravitas is needed in tone of voice and that special attention should be paid to the writing, even to the grammar.

I think the awkwardness I have noticed may be related to a change in the use of tenses. There used to be a clear distinction between Past Simple and Present Perfect, at least in BrE. So "have died after a train crash" ("rail" and "railway" seem to be less commonly heard) would not sound strange. The Present Perfect would imply that the crash was fairly recent and the effects were continuing: so many people died or were killed instantly, others were injured, some have since died, some may still die as a result.

Also, in BrE the Past Simple was formerly used mostly with past time references and indeed with mentions of place, too, as in "died in an accident yesterday in X". The Present Perfect was often used in a vaguer, more general way more suitable for fluid, ongoing situations. (By the by, wasn't there once a journalist's check list on the lines of "Who, What, Where, When..." Do people still learn that sort of thing? Did it go out at the same time as the advice against using direct Yes/No questions?)

But, under AmE influence - and perhaps European language-speakers have had an effect, too - usage seems to be changing. The Present Perfect is sometimes used with past time-expressions ("Something has happened last year") and the Past Simple is used where BrE once had the Present Perfect eg "Did you finish yet?", which still seems strange to me.

Of course, I love all these changes! But sometimes they have a weird effect and can lead to a loss of distinctions, or even ambiguity. What do all you AmE and German-speakers think?


  1. The difference in tenses is not to do with recency. News is reported in the present perfect and news is by definition recent, but that is not the point. I have seen the Taj Mahal. I saw it in 1983. That is not recent.
    The present perfect is used when no time period is stated or the time period continues into the present (that's why it's the present perfect). The past simple is used when the time period is stated and is complete. Ten people have died in an accident. / Ten people died in an accident this morning/earlier today/yesterday.

    1. Thanks for that. Yes, agreed. But I feel news stories using Pres Perfect suggest a continuing scenario and possibly a story which happened today, or where the effects are continuing: passengers have been badly injured / were killed.

  2. But my main point was about the strange use of "after".