When is Ex- ?

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This title on a Reuters story on Yahoo gave me a double-take:

Ex-Heisman winner Troy Smith arrested on DUI and drug charge

There is no suggestion that the Heisman trophy award was ever rescinded. I think in my dialect, once a Heisman trophy winner, always a Heisman trophy winner. I've never heard anyone called an ex-Nobel Prize winner. Am I missing something, or is this really unusual usage? I think even O.J. Simpson is still a Heisman trophy winner.

But I can imagine that the line between where I clearly use ex- and where I don't might not be sharp. Ex-president, ex-spouse are clear. (Hmm, there's also 'former' in competition — that's what I would use for 'department head', not ex-.) I find myself sometimes starting to say "Some of our former Ph.D's (never ex-!!)", but then I usually stop and remove 'former'. Aha, they're our former students, but not our former graduates – they're our graduates forever.

But back to the Heisman trophy. Even if you only hold possession of the trophy for a year, actually or symbolically, you're still a trophy winner forever, aren't you?



  1. GeorgeW said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 5:42 pm

    2006 Heisman Trophy winner . . . would be better. I think.

  2. Ted Powell said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 5:58 pm

    … you're still a trophy winner forever, aren't you?

    Not if you're Reggie Bush, ex-winner of the 2005 Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

  3. E said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 5:58 pm

    I have former supervisors and an ex-supervisor. The ex-supervisor is a supervisor who was abruptly replaced by another with little notice under unfortunate circumstances. It was sad, unlike losing a supervisor due to the conclusion of a project. To me, ex implies somebody who has suddenly left your life under not great circumstances. Someone you lose contact with isn’t an ex-friend. Someone you have a massive fight with is. If someone referred to their ex-parent or ex-child, I would assume disowning rather than death.

  4. Ted Powell said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    Note that https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy_Smith#Heisman_Trophy makes a reference to "the then-2005 Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush"—perhaps a more apt characterization.

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    Perhaps Smith is still a winner of the prize formerly known as Heisman.

  6. Jake said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    I remember a news feature at one point referring to Brain Wilson (at the time disassociated from his band) as an "ex-Beach Boys founder". Apparently the dissociation with the band was so powerful it went back in time and undid his role in its formation.

  7. FM said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 6:19 pm

    They may be former students in the department, but would you talk about your former students or your students? Or does it depend on context?

    I've heard differing opinions on whether my advisor is still my advisor now that I have a PhD. I'm in the yes camp.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 6:19 pm

    It seems that they treat "winner" like a title. On the Heisman website (http://heisman.com/roster.aspx?path=football) no one is listed for 2005 (Reggie Bush's year). O. J. Simpson is still listed. His bio recites his football accomplishments and says nothing about his off-the-field difficulties. It seems that once the trophy is awarded based on football merit, one remains a "Heisman Winner" for life.

  9. FM said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 6:32 pm

    Also (as someone who knows nothing about football but just read a couple Wikipedia articles) it seems like the difference between the Heisman trophy and the Nobel Prize is that the former is attached to the player's performance in a particular year, competing only with other college kids, and the latter is for lifetime achievement. So this guy has a chance of ending up in the washed-up former high-achieving youth mental category, which it sounds like he may have. I might even call him a "one-time Heisman winner". Compare: "one-time International Math Olympiad gold medalist now working on Wall Street." (To choose a topic I'm more familiar with…) "Ex-" still sounds weird.

  10. Anselm Lingnau said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 6:59 pm

    Actually, according to Alfred Nobel, the Nobel prize was supposed to go to the most notable achievement in the field in question in the preceding year (!). This is not how it usually works out today, but the Nobels still are supposed to be awarded for specific advances rather than as lifetime achievement awards. Einstein, for example, got his Nobel in physics in 1922, for the photoelectric effect which he had published 17 years earlier, in 1905. Of course in 1905 Einstein had also published his special theory of relativity, but in the early 1920s this was still too contentious to be considered worth a Nobel prize. (It also turns out that the physics prize Einstein received in 1922 was really the 1921 prize, because in 1921 none of the nominees were considered eligible as far as the Nobel committee was concerned, and the rules say that in such a case the prize can be awarded the next time around.)

    Of course, while in Einstein's time great minds could apparently come up with loads of unrelated brilliant ideas in quick succession, what is more likely to happen these days is that Professor X and Doctor Y spend a significant portion of their careers chipping away at a very specific problem, and even if they eventually make a Nobel-worthy breakthrough they might have been busy on that for decades already.

  11. D.O. said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 7:52 pm

    For me (non-native speaker) "winner" precludes "ex-". If you won something, that's forever. You can be a former winner, if there is a new one, but ex- requires the end of a certain state and winning is not a state.

  12. Theophylact said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 8:19 pm

    The same with military titles": "General Bigbrass, USA (retired)". And you're never an ex-Marine.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 8:42 pm

    I think E is on to something in terms of "ex-" having more specific and negative semantics than "former," although I guess one should also consider the tendency of headlinese to favor brevity. For example there's a story from a year ago headlined "Ex-Champion Kelly Pavlik Indicted In Ohio," whose less compact first sentence reads "The former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik has been indicted on felony charges in Ohio after being accused of shooting a man with a pellet gun." I do think part of the problem here is that "Heisman winner Troy Smith" might without context be taken to mean this year's winner by people not sufficiently up on the sport to know that that fellow isn't named Troy Smith, so you need something to clarify that the fellow referenced is not this year's "incumbent." But what's the best modifier to make that clear? "One-time," which was mentioned in a prior comment, eats up even more characters than "former" but is maybe in slightly less tension with the "once a winner, always a winner" point?

    OTOH, it's not hard to find news stories referring to someone (whether being honored for some new accomplishment or being charged with murder or being murdered him/herself …) as a "former valedictorian," even though my intuition had been that the "once a winner, always a winner" point should apply there as well. But you can even find hits for "former Medal of Honor winner" (and these are not situations where the award had been revoked …) so maybe the intuition Prof. Partee and I (among others) share about there being no "former" for certain sorts of achievements is simply not universally shared.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 8:48 pm

    Note that UT-Austin's alumni association is formally the "Ex-Students' Association," which sounds rather odd to my non-Texan ear precisely because the "ex-" kinda sorta suggests students who flunked out or were expelled etc. rather than having ceased to be students due to graduation in the ordinary course. But it presumably doesn't sound pejorative to them — the almost-rhyme in the familiar name of the group (the "Texas Exes") probably helps, but I doubt they started with the rhyme and worked backwards from it.

  15. Viseguy said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    In a similar vein, I always pause over statements such as, "Antonin Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1986 by former President Ronald Reagan". Reagan wasn't a former president when he appointed Scalia, now, was he? Is the writer really afraid that, if he omitted "former", someone might infer that Reagan is still president?

  16. JS said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 9:04 pm

    @Viseguy — they would be perfectly justified in doing so lacking the relevant pragmatic knowledge; my impression is that "then-President," etc., is common (and clearer as it blocks the interpretation that Reagan was former President at the time?) in such cases.

    As for "ex-Heisman winner," I find it odd and propose "Heisman wonner."

  17. Ted Powell said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 9:08 pm

    "Antonin Scalia was appointed … by former President Ronald Reagan"

    This is another case where "then-" is the more apt qualifier: "by then-President Ronald Reagan".

  18. Barbara Partee said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 10:52 pm

    I also agree with E.
    And I like JM's question about 'my former students' vs 'my students' — there I think it would vary in part with the tense of the sentence it's in. If I say 'my student' in a present tense sentence, I think it would strongly suggest, at least, that she is still a student. There there's an asymmetry with 'my advisor', who I will always happily refer to as my advisor even if now that I'm 75 and he's 86 we haven't been in that relation actively for about 50 years — with a relationship to an elder, there may be an element of 'honorific' to it, much as former presidents are forever addressed as "President X".
    And I suspect that my tendency to sometimes say "my former PhD" may result from a blend of "my former student" and "my PhD", the latter an expression that is not completely felicitous anyway — but "person whose PhD dissertation I chaired" is much too long, and "my PhD student" doesn't actually entail that she finished.

  19. AB said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 11:54 pm

    Might one not reasonably speak of "ex-tour de France winner
    Lance Armstrong"?

  20. Rebecca said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 11:58 pm

    I think it's kind of squishy whether these qualifiers need to be temporaly accurate. I agree with Viseguy's and JS's intuitions on the examples they cite, but I can easily say something like "I met my ex in college", when, of course, at the time of meeting, my ex was not only not an ex, he was still a not yet.

  21. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 2:58 am

    In a related question, how far can "ex-" get lexically from the noun it modifies? If there can be an "ex-Beach Boys founder", can there be an ex-2005 Heisman Trophy winner? An ex-Supreme Court Justice (assuming Diana Ross has not been appointed to the bench)? An ex-modern Major General?

  22. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 3:06 am

    An expression that I have trouble with is "the former East Germany. " To my knowledge the region so designated has not been moved from its eastern location, and it was never officially known as East Germany anyway. "The former GDR" (or DDR), yes.

  23. pietl said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 3:41 am

    When a woman's former husband dies, might she be an ex-widow rather than an ex-wife?

  24. mollymooly said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 5:03 am

    Whereas "winner" is punctual, "champion" is stative. For me, "champion" by default means "reigning champion", so to override this you need to specify "former champion". Does "winner" by default mean "most recent winner"? I suspect it depends; certainly I might have inferred from "Heisman winner Troy Smith" that Smith won this year's Heisman. No doubt that is the mistake Reuters sought to prevent.

  25. ajay said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 5:34 am

    And you're never an ex-Marine.

    Not even if you are no more, cease to be, are defunct, are bereft of life, rest in peace, shuffle off this mortal coil and (terrain permitting, and assuming you have not been nailed to the flagstaff) begin pushing up daisies?

  26. Rodger C said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 6:51 am

    It seems to be a journalistic rule to refer to someone as an "ex-Marine" only if he's just shot six people or something.

  27. Theophylact said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 9:24 am

    A related question: How long do you have to be dead before you're no longer "late"? "The late Jacques Barzun", surely; "the late H. M. Fowler", just possibly; but "the late Meister Eckhart" (d. ~1328)?

  28. Mr. Praline said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 9:46 am

    Twenty-seven comments, and not a single person brings up the Ex-Parrot?!


  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 10:03 am

    I would think a good rule of thumb for the use of "the late X" is that it may be appropriate when X's lifespan overlapped with the speaker's such that they did or plausibly could have interacted while X was still alive. How old the speaker would have needed to be at X's death may depend on the sort of interaction that it's plausible to suppose. I might refer to my late great-aunt so-and-so even if she died when I was a toddler, because toddlers can and do interact with elderly relatives, but it would be odder for me to refer to the late Professor so-and-so if he or she had died well before I was old enough to matriculate and/or be reading scholarly books. And "interaction" obviously need not be personal, in the sense that it might refer to a musician or artist or writer whose work one had enjoyed from a distance. (Personal example, I can imagine myself saying "the late John Bonham" in a way I wouldn't say "the late Jimi Hendrix" because I was consciously "interacting with" rock musicians as of 1980, aged 15, in a way I hadn't been as of 1971, aged 6. So although Hendrix's lifespan overlapped with mine, my conscious awareness of him arose well after he was dead.) Of course, sometimes the speaker is speaking from a POV that is not strictly personal/autobiographical.

    There are obviously other factors at play. Some people are, as it were, sufficiently famous for being dead that "late" adds no information. Although it may still have some rhetorical function: one can imagine a politician saying in a speech "the late President Kennedy once said that blah blah blah" even though it can be assumed that everyone in the audience knows Kennedy is dead and is unlikely to be confused as to whether the speaker is referring to something Kennedy said while still alive or while no longer alive.

  30. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 10:16 am

    But you can even find hits for "former Medal of Honor winner"

    Hmm. I can see that one could say – whether it's appropriate or not – that you are the Heisman winner (Nobel Prize winner, valedictorian, etc.) only until the new one is chosen. But when does one cease to a be a Medal of Honor winner?

  31. Mr Punch said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 10:32 am

    Medals of Honor have in fact been revoked – in the award's early days, during the Civil War, I believe it was given to entire regiments, but that doesn't count anymore. As for former presidents of the US, protocol used to be to address them by their next-highest title (e.g., General Eisenhower, Governor Coolidge), on the principle that there's only one President at a time

  32. Jen said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 10:55 am

    Past Heisman winner? I don't think anyone's suggested that yet.

    'One-time' sounds to me like they're expected to do it twice.

  33. BZ said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 11:03 am

    I would use late when there is any chance that someone might think they are alive when talking about someone's family. I'd say grandparents and great-relatives would need a "late", but not anyone from the generation previous to that, unless there is additional contextual ambiguity (such as when it is known that not all of someone's great-grandparents are deceased). As for public figures, I agree with the life overlap thing.

    What about ex-runner-up? It seems to me that that would work unless there can only be one runner-up in context.

  34. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 11:04 am

    Google suggests that no one of whom it is aware has ever tried "quondam Heisman winner." The adoption of the forward pass in 1906 was alas followed (although I guess this might be merely post hoc ergo propter hoc?) by a severe decline in the level of Latinity among college football players.

  35. D.O. said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    @AB. If you mean that Lance Armstrong was stripped of his title, I'd say calling him ex-winner confuses rather than informs. At least for me, if not aware of the story, I would think that someone is reaching for "winner in one of the previous competitions", but expresses it unartfuly. Maybe it is for the better that we do not have a shorthand for someone whose achievement was officially revoked. "Disgraced" seems to be closest, but it is a bit long for some headlines.

  36. DWalker said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

    "Some people are, as it were, sufficiently famous for being dead that "late" adds no information."

    Maybe they just need to be "sufficiently dead", but that verges into the Monty Python territory that was mentioned.

  37. David Scott Marley said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

    Seems to me it's pretty simple: I will use "late" when (a) I want to communicate that the person is dead, and (b) I think the reader or listener might not already know.

    That probably comes out to much the same thing as the life overlap rule of thumb, but that seems like a roundabout way of putting it.

  38. David Scott Marley said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 5:07 pm

    As a longtime editor myself, I think the use of "ex-" in the headline is not an "unusual usage", just plain wrong.

    But it's not hard to guess what probably happened.

    The Reuters story begins "Former pro football quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith was arrested early on Sunday on suspicion of marijuana possession and driving under the influence, police said." The copy editor, who like all newspaper copy editors nowadays is insanely overworked, had about seventeen seconds to turn that into a headline. Already tired near the end of a long day, she misinterpreted "former" as modifying both "quarterback" and "Heisman winner", saw that the latter was the narrower and therefore more headline-worthy designation, put an "ex-" before it, and — all too aware that she had sixty-three more headlines to write in the next eighteen minutes if Reuters was not going to miss the all-important 3:00 pm deadline for sending the day's news stories to Yahoo! — moved on to the next headline without a second thought.

  39. Viseguy said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

    @JS and @Ted Powell: Granted, "Scalia was appointed in 1986 by then-President Reagan" is unexceptionable. On the other hand, if Reagan hadn't "then" been president, the appointment would have been a nullity — so what does "then" add? It comes down to removing the ambiguity about whether Reagan is still president. I'll leave it to professional reporters and editors to decide how lacking in the relevant pragmatic knowledge their readers are.

  40. James said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 6:41 pm

    Whither erstwhile?

  41. David Scott Marley said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 7:17 pm


  42. Ray said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 7:24 pm

    I think “ex” in this headline is refreshingly poetic and apt, a shorthand that nicely compresses and conveys the ideas of ‘former’ and ‘persona non grata’, with audible resemblances to ‘exiled’, ‘excommunicated’, ‘ex parte’, ‘crossed out’…

  43. Rebecca said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 8:50 pm

    I'm going to echo the title of this post, and ask: when is then-?

    I happened across this sentence today:

    A decade from today, then-teenager Oliver Allen will be sitting in front of a TV and an upcoming documentary show will be promoted

    It's perfectly understandable, but it gave me pause because I think I use "then-" only for past attributes, never for future ones. Is this common?

  44. Barbara Partee said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 9:55 pm

    @Rebecca — ""I met my ex in college" is a different matter — there's always an ambiguity in those cases as to whether the noun phrase is to be interpreted relative to the context created within the sentence (the time of the meeting, in college) or relative to the time of speaking. That's not anything special about "ex" — the same happens with "I was in a Shakespeare play with my first wife in college" — she could have been your first wife already then, (and maybe still your wife then, a complication I didn't mean to introduce), or she could be your first wife now (in which case she's probably not your wife now, though of course you CAN refer to your one and only wife as your first wife if you want to make her nervous.) (Like some of the other 'titles', 'honors', etc that we've been discussing, once the first wife, always the first wife, even though in this case we don't usually use that description until there's a second.)

  45. Barbara Partee said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 9:58 pm

    @Rebecca re most recent post — I think 'then' is less common referring to future than to past, but I don't think it's that odd – it seems natural me to say that the Republican senators want to postpone the confirmation hearings until after the elections and wait and let the then president make her own [ :-) ] nomination.

  46. Barbara Partee said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 10:02 pm

    And I'm ready to agree with @David Scott Marley's idea about how it happened — adding the factor that several have noted that "ex-" sounds negative and the negativity seems warranted – as @Ray said, it carries the connotation of 'persona non grata'. (I felt something like that when I wrote in the original post that even OJ was still a Heisman trophy winner, given that they didn't actually strip him of it.)

  47. peter said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 11:53 pm

    Former New South Premier Neville Wran was once asked by a journalist, after he had retired from politics, whether he was still consulted by his erstwhile colleagues. He replied in the negative, remarking, "When you are ex, you are really ex."

  48. James Wimberley said,

    April 5, 2016 @ 5:19 am

    I don't know about ex-modern Major Generals, but there are certainly postmodern ones running Cyberwarfare Command.

  49. peter said,

    April 5, 2016 @ 6:20 am

    Post-modern is indeed a good description of the cyberwarfare command – especially when the US military and the Chinese People's Liberation Army hold cyberwar games (military exercises in cyberspace) against each other! The stated intention for these exercises is to allow each side an opportunity to learn the typical plays and "tells" of the other, to avoid mistaken attribution in a real cyber conflict. But, of course, neither side would seek to reveal their real plays and tells in such exercises.

  50. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2016 @ 9:55 pm

    "China's Ex-Top General Faces Trial Over `Enormous' Bribery" (4/5/16)

    A retired top general of the People’s Liberation Army has been formally charged with taking bribes and will face court martial in China’s highest-level military corruption case in more than six decades.

  51. GH said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 2:07 pm

    From the US Weekly home page (4/12/16):

    "Ciara Refuses to Say Ex Future's Name While Announcing Billboard Nominees"

    (The story itself currently bears the fuller and clearer title: "Ciara Refuses to Say Ex-Fiance Future’s Name While Announcing Billboard Nominees")

    The confusion in this case is of course entirely unrelated to the issue at hand, and possibly completely absent for those who know off the top of their head that "Future" is the name of a rapper.

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