“First degree murder is when you kill someone…”

Two problems already, and the sentence is only half-over. Every teacher of writing will note the glaring “is when.” This usage is very common in speech and, alas, also characterizes many a student’s definition sentences. Very rarely is this construction “correct,” in its purest sense. After all, verbs of being translate into equal signs (=) and, just as in math, the equation must balance. The noun on the left-hand side of the = is usually not equivalent to an adverb, or adverb clause. A clause on the other side of the = has to be a noun clause, and the argument can certainly be made that “when you kill someone” can function as a noun clause, if it does the job of a noun (here, it does) AND, in this particular construction, if it means the same thing as the noun on the other side of the =. But it doesn’t. “Murder” is an act; “when you kill someone” is an occasion or event. Here’s a sentence where the “is when” works: “The month before Christmas is when children are on their best behavior.” My student’s sentence does not fit this conceptual pattern.

I’ve mentioned this problematic structure before, and in the context of the other problem in this entry, too: my student has chosen to offer his reader a definition straight out of the dictionary. Why students feel their readers have weaker vocabularies than they, and less access to a dictionary than they, is beyond me. No matter how many times I talk about “defining your terms” as clarifying or establishing a limited or UNorthodox application of a word, what the students seem to  hear is “so be sure to look the word up in the dictionary and tell your reader what the dictionary says!” Perhaps they feel their readers are even more like them than I like to face: ignorant of the standard meaning of the word but too lazy or unresourceful to look it up.

But we must move on to the second half of the sentence, as implicitly promised by that ellipsis:

“First degree murder is when you kill someone and it was premeditated with malice after thought.”

That “after thought” is wonderful, isn’t it? The problem it presents is that premeditating something after thought, while possible (first you think about something, and then you think in a focused way about what to do about it, and then, since that was premeditating, you actually do something), is still strange, or at least strange to tease out into separate  processes. In my student’s sentence, the “thought” must have generated “malice,” and the malice led to “premeditation,” planning the killing.

The phrase most of us know, though, is “malice aforethought.” This is a legal term, and a legal concept. It betokens a conscious decision to kill (or, more generally, commit a crime) before doing the act. That malevolent intention is what distinguishes first-degree murder from other kinds of homicide. “Afore” means, more or less, “before,” and thus the malice precedes the actual planning of the act, or even just the act without conscious planning.

But most of my students don’t know the word “afore,” let alone “aforethought”—although they probably know the word “afterthought.” I’ve had writers refer to “malice of forethought,” implying that thinking ahead is actually the bad part; and here, of course, I have the writer with the “malice after thought,” which I guess sounds sort of like “malice aforethought.”

If my student was intent on providing a dictionary definition, though, I do wish he had actually gone to a dictionary, where he would have found the correct term and its spelling. I have to assume, then, that his offer of a definition was meant to save the reader time unnecessarily riffling through Webster’s: my guy, wiser than his reader, to the rescue! With friends like that….

More even than regular discourse, the law depends on language. Precision, accuracy: quite often, you need only a moment to get it right. I wish my student had acknowledged the importance of getting it right and taken that moment. Knowing to do so depends, though, on an intellectual humility and self-awareness that may not be part of the arsenal of youth.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““First degree murder is when you kill someone…”

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