Isn’t it obvious?

A reader, Loretta from Carrboro, wrote recently about a broadcast reports that refer to something that someone did or was “before his [or her] death,” such as “Charlton Heston was a conservative activist before his death.” It seems obvious that the last prepositional phrase is not necessary. Death tends to stop folks from being any kind of activist. As Loretta and I agree, this is not a big issue and it certainly isn’t a grammar, usage or style error. It’s just, as Loretta puts it, an “irksome idiom.”

I’d been looking for examples in print or online that illustrate the needless use of the phrase “before his death.” I found one today:

“Soap fans were shocked when Mike Reid died suddenly last year, but his television legacy lives on, thanks to ITV1’s decision to air the last series he completed before his death.”

The writer refers to “the last series he completed,” so “before his death” is just a hiccup at the end of the sentence. But maybe there is a reason for this that isn’t clear to me. Do the writers or broadcasters who use this phrase think they need to cover themselves, to acknowledge that the action or state of being was true before the subject died?

Loretta cited an example that brings up another issue: Eve Carson was “a widely known student leader before her death.” She points out that Carson remains a widely known student leader.

Of course, most instances of “before his [or her] death” don’t fall into this category of “irksome idiom,” because the writer is referring to a period of time that is relevant to a person’s death, as in “the night before his death” or “in the weeks before his death.” Those references are fine.

I’m on a “death” watch now, and I’ll post other examples as comments.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.