Amid summer night’s dream

17 Sep

“Amid” is a useful word. Possibly a bit too useful. It’s just a simple preposition – “among, in the middle of”, per Collins – but in the hands of us journalists, it’s startling how much more it can be made to mean.

It’s one of those words that gets used far more often in a metaphorical sense than a concrete one. If you’re standing in the way as a flock of panicked Swaledales come rushing down a country lane, you’re “among”, “in the middle of” or “surrounded by” sheep; you probably wouldn’t say you were “amid” them. It’s a less precise and more abstract word than that – a conceptual preposition for conceptual nouns.  Indeed, Merriam-Webster, which provides a fuller definition than Collins, includes an entirely abstract usage: “with the accompaniment of”.

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So it’s no surprise to see it being used that way in copy:

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Except that “amid” doesn’t quite seem to do the relationship here justice. A bad business climate is certainly “accompanying” this news, but isn’t it doing slightly more than that?

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This isn’t just proximity: this is causality. Holden’s caught in a currency crunch and a sales slump, but it’s cutting jobs for some other reason? No. This usage may not be in the dictionary, but the writer here means “because of”, and everyone knows it.

And that understanding, that slightly lazy but uncontroversial inference, can be very useful: exceedingly so when the ground gets more legally precarious and you have to be a little more careful. For example, when there’s a crime, and an allegation, and a resignation, but no jury has pronounced guilt –

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– “amid” is just the word you want. There may or may not be a “cryptic” admission; there certainly hasn’t, at this point, been any finding in a court of law. There’s only one preposition here that really keeps you safe. And this time, if the reader infers some kind of causation from the use of the word – well, we’ve no idea why.  If the audience is getting some kind of inter hoc, ergo propter hoc vibe from the way the headline is written – well, they’re on their own. You can look it up in the dictionary. Our hands are clean.

“Amid” has got the kind of flexibility a journalist in a hurry loves. You see it everywhere when you’re editing. Sometimes, in fact, you find it being used in relation to single items that it is impossible to be “among”, even conceptually:

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“Amid a warning”. It’s ludicrous. But it’s so time- and space-efficient; so much shorter than saying “because of”, and so much quicker than trying to think through and express the precise causative relationship.

I try to avoid using it when I can. I think it’s vague,  a little slippery, possibly even a touch disingenuous. But it’s so … useful.

3 Responses to “Amid summer night’s dream”


  1. Vagueness is in | Ten minutes past deadline - September 26, 2013

    […] last week we were praising – or at least reluctantly admiring – “amid” for its compactness, usefulness and, in the right hands, suggestiveness. In the old days of hot […]

  2. The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline | Ten minutes past deadline - March 21, 2017

    […] the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for those collections of circumstances whose precise relationship to each other is hard to […]

  3. A talent to amaze | Ten minutes past deadline - April 16, 2019

    […] the headline, that those facts are related to each other, and that, in the language of headlinese, prepositions imply causation. All you need to do is subvert any one of those conventions – and this headline, by accident or […]

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