An alleged explanation

If you write enough words, eventually somebody will get upset with you. If they get really angry, they might sue you. If you were sloppy in your writing, they might even win.

One way to keep from getting into trouble is to make sure you don’t state something as a fact unless you are sure it is a fact. It’s even better if you can prove that the fact is, in fact, a fact. If you can’t, you have to tread carefully.

As humorist Stephen Leacock once wrote, “A person who writes for a newspaper very soon learns certain tricks of the trade, arising out of necessity. Thus he must learn to call a murderer an alleged murderer, and the King of England the alleged King of England. This forestalls libel suits.”

Let’s pick apart Mr. Leacock’s paragraph to see how this all works. While we’re at it, we’ll cover some companion words and phrases such as “suspected,” “accused,” “claimed” and “charged with.”

Basically, “allegedly” means that I may not be able to prove that the claim is a fact, but it’s a fact that some people have made the claim.

So if the police discover a grisly scene with a dead body, we don’t get to decide on our own whether it was a murder. You can only claim that you suspect it was murder. Once your local law enforcement agency says it’s a murder, you are free to call it that without any hedging.

Maybe there were plenty of witnesses who saw someone swing the knife or shoot the pistol and then run away. Did they see an “alleged murderer?” Nope. He’s absolutely the murderer, whomever he is. The police may refer to this unnamed person as the perpetrator, or “perp.” Again, there’s no question that the mystery person did the deed, so there’s no “alleged perpetrator.”

The big question, of course, is the identity of the murderer.

After questioning witnesses, following footprints and other basic work, the police think they know who did it. They arrest Algernon Fonebone and charge him with murder.

So can we call Fonebone a murderer? Not yet. He’s an accused murderer, an alleged murderer, the alleged perpetrator, or the guy charged with murder. It’s up to a court to decide whether he’s guilty. Right now he’s just a suspect. But he’s not an “alleged suspect” because there’s no question that the police suspect him of the crime.

If a jury finds him guilty, you can call Fonebone a murderer. At that point, you stop calling him a suspect, because we’ve settled all suspicions — legally, at least.

As for kings and queens, you don’t need to allege anything if the are sitting on thrones and everybody agrees that they belong there. If someone is claiming to be the rightful king but hasn’t gone through a coronation (or has been forced out but won’t concede defeat), we call him a pretender to the throne. Why? That a post for another day.



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