Reporting evacuation: rule evasion or evolution?

In these days of SEO-friendly headlines, long-standing language rules are often ignored — like the one that says you can evacuate places, but not people. Judy Maddren, former CBC grammar guru, sets the record straight.

You can evacuate places, but not people. Well, actually you can, but only if you say it correctly!

Two recent headlines concerning the earthquake in Japan, and the resulting nuclear reactor emergency, illustrate how the words evacuation and evacuating are sometimes used when referring to moving people:

Ottawa not looking at evacuating Canadians from JapanGlobe and Mail

US begins evacuation of Americans in Japan Star-Telegram

Workers evacuated as smokes rises from Japanese nuclear plantVOA

Smoke rising over Fukushima nuclear plant prompts worker evacuationCityNews Toronto

In the first show of the 2008 series of HBO’s The Wire, a crusty old editor rips into a reporter who had written “The fire department evacuated 120 people”. He tells her that “You evacuate buildings, not people!” The unspoken meaning here is that the fire department administered enemas to 120 people.

In the purest sense, the word evacuation means to create a vacuum, to empty out. That expands to several meanings, either as a transitive or intransitive verb, ranging from removing or purging something contained within, to defecating.

It is correct to say, when referring to removing people from a place of danger, that they were evacuated FROM a place, or evacuated TO another place. You can evacuate people FROM or TO somewhere.

But when referring to a place, it is correct to say that a building or a town was evacuated. No FROM or TO is needed in that case.

People are evacuated from or to; things are simply evacuated.

When disaster strikes, and people are in danger, most of us understand the word evacuate, whether or not FROM or TO accompany the word. But in the muddy ground of changing language usage, those of us who insist on rules for language use often hear accusations of “pedant”!

Headline writers work with very tight restrictions and parameters. What brief phrase can point out the meat of the story? Sometimes that “tight” writing results in headlines such as these: ‘Lawyers Give Poor Free Legal Advice” or ‘Miners refuse to work after death’. Drop a word, and change the meaning.

The more we try to make sure our message is clear and succinct, the less likely the meaning will be misunderstood. So in terms of evacuation, the addition of FROM or TO is a simple solution (and a lot cleaner!)

Judy Maddren is a partner in Soundportraits, producing audio recordings of people of all ages recalling their memories and experiences. She hosted CBC Radio’s World Report till 2009, and for almost a decade was the Media Broadcast Advisor, providing language, pronunciation and style recommendations to CBC broadcasters and writers.