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"Judge likely to hew jury's prison recommendation in slay sentencing of ex-U.Va. lax player", Washington Post (from AP) 8/27/2012:

Does this headline mean that, compared to the jury's recommended prison term, the judge is likely to
A) Increase the term slightly
B) Increase the term substantially
C) Decrease the term slightly
D) Decrease the term substantially
E) Leave the term as recommended

If you answered C) or D), you presumably understood the verb hew in the OED's sense 3, glossed as "To cut with blows so as to shape, smooth, trim, reduce in size, or the like". If you answered D), you were probably influenced by association with the force and scope of cutting associated with sense  2, "To strike forcibly with a cutting tool; to cut with swinging strokes of a sharp instrument, as an axe or sword; to chop, hack, gash".

But the answer is actually E), as revealed in the first sentence of the article:

When former University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely V is sentenced for the slaying of his ex-girlfriend, the odds are a judge will heed a jury’s recommended 26-year sentence and Huguely will serve his time in a state prison without the prospect of parole.

This generalizes a usage that's not in the OED's entry for hew, but is glossed by the American Heritage Dictionary as "To adhere or conform strictly; hold: hew to the line". The underlying metaphor seems to be one of cutting in a way that follows a pre-defined pattern. Thus the motto of the 19th magazine Our Society Journal, "It Hews To The Line, Not Caring Where The Chips May Fall".

The Post's headline generalizes this to a simple transitive form.  This is not unprecedented — thus in the 1912 Proceedings of the Grand Commandery, Knights Templar and Appendant Orders of the District of Columbia, we find

But still, "hewing" a jury's prison recommendation is not a very clear way to describe agreeing with it.

[Tip of the hat to Dan Milton]


  1. Chris Waters said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

    I recognized C, D, and E as possibilities, though C and D seemed more likely. If I'd meant E, I would have said "hew to". But I know that headlines often drop almost-necessary words, so E did occur to me.

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

    "Hew to" would have made all the difference in clarity, but headline writers are so accustomed to thinking in terms of character count (for print) that they omit needed words even for online heds.

    In any case, hewing to a line has a specific referent in the craft world. In post-and-beam construction, which dates to Neolithic times, the framer uses an adze to hew each timber and achieves the desired dimensions by first scribing a line and then hewing to it.

  3. jfruh said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    Never mind "hew," I'm still staring at "slay sentencing." Are we British now?

  4. David L said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

    Also 'lax' for lacrosse. I guess the Post is really trying to scrimp on ink (and/or electrons) these days, as well as reporters and editors and whatnot.

  5. Kasper said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    I'm British, and I have no idea what 'slay sentencing' means! I infer something along the lines of 'sentencing for murder'. We don't slay people as a punishment any more, jfruh.

  6. KWillets said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

    Hewing in the first sense is squaring logs by removing wood along the sides; I would take it to mean that the judge left the sentence the same length, but made it narrower.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    Using "heed" from the body of the story would seem better at the cost of only one more character ("hew to" would have been a lot better than "hew" but still a bit peculiar), except I suppose it could be taken in context to mean something vaguer like "take into account, not ignore or disregard" as opposed to "follow exactly." Maybe "accept"?

    Headlinese obviously favors short words ("lax" for "lacrosse" is an excellent example, and "slay" is common for similar reasons), but "hew" is not one I recall seeing in that context. But having not read the Washington Post on a frequent basis since I last lived in that part of the country over two decades ago, I can't assess whether "hew" has become part of the headlinese idiolect of that particular paper. Maybe there's a corpus-linguistics way of investigating that?

  8. mgh said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    why isn't this sense of hew in the OED? unless followed by wood, it is the first sense of hew I think of, and occurs in the press frequently:

    "Auto sales hew closely to consumer confidence" – BusinessWeek, Aug 1
    "buses don't hew precisely to the schedule" – Greater Washington, Aug 27
    "the companies and individuals who connect to the Internet hew to industry standards" – Fremont Tribune, Aug 3
    "the Vatican ordered the women to abandon controversial positions and closely hew to official teachings" – Wall Street Journal, Aug 6
    …and many others, in a quick google news search

    [(myl) In the current OED entry for hew, v., the most recent citation is dated 1898. I interpret this to mean that the entry for hew has not been updated since the fascicle heel-hod was first published in December of 1898. Either Mr. Murray and the others simply missed the "hew to a line" sense; or it wasn't in use then; or perhaps was an Americanism that they hadn't encountered.

    I'm not sure when an update to entries in that range is planned, but perhaps it's being prepared behind the scenes right now.]

  9. Michael Drake said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

    I read the missing "to" into the headline without even realizing it, and selected E). Evidence of a missing preposition effect? (Or just carelessness on my part?)

  10. Brett said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 6:02 pm

    I found the meaning completely transparent, albeit ungrammatical in at least two places.

  11. The Ridger said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 6:23 pm

    Arnold Zwicky posted on this, too.

  12. The Ridger said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

    Argh. My previous is on the wrong post – should have been on the sleepwalking one.

  13. will said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

    Thought it was E but that required me making the assumption that they left out "to" after hew.

  14. Julie said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

    Without the "to," I automatically opted for the wrong meaning.

  15. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

    @David L.
    "Lax" is very commonly used as an abbreviation for "lacrosse" outside the world of headline writers. One of North America's largest retailers of lacrosse equipment is Lax World.

  16. PaulB said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

    I'm English, and I guessed that "hew" meant "cut". The "hew to" meaning is completely new to me.

    It's interested that hew in American English seems to have taken on two contradictory meanings, closely similar to the two meanings of "cleave". But the latter two meanings come from two different roots.

  17. lynneguist said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

    I discussed this (well, 'hew to') some time ago, as it had confused a British reader of mine. Seems to be a very American phrasing.

    The spam filter will probably get me for this, but: http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/hew-to.html

  18. D-AW said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

    Lynneguist's post quotes a Heaney poem I'm using for an in-progress article on "poetic antagonyms". I share the sense of others posting above who are flummoxed by "hew" without "to". To follow the implicit (but I think mistaken) analogy in the Heaney poem, what if the headline read "Judge likely to cleave jury's recommendation"? My guess is that "to hew to" was corrected to "to hew" by an editor unfamiliar with the idiom (which I take to be American – maybe not.)

  19. D-AW said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

    By the way, I first encountered the idiom (as an idiom, I didn't recognize it as such the first time I read the Heaney poem, which made the poem a lot easier to understand) in Derek Attridge's most recent contribution to the study of English poetic rhythm, "The Case for the English Dolnik; or, How Not to Introduce Prosody," in Poetics Today: http://poeticstoday.dukejournals.org/content/33/1.toc

  20. Ø said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

    "Slay" is US headline-ese for murder, as in "slay suspect".

  21. Josh Treleaven said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 11:48 pm

    I just heard Rachel Maddow using "hew" today, nested in pseudo-quotes as if she were speaking for Republicans (is there a word for for that rhetorical device in which you assume the voice of someone else? Occasionally used mockingly, but often just to clarify that other's position). I don't know if Ms Maddow would use the word in her own voice, but she definitely knows how to wield it (note: "hewing to xyz").

    "But amid all of that sort of persistent factionalism in today's unsettled Republican politics, the figure who actually has the best chance at being this year's Barry Goldwater–the guy who comes in this year and says 'we're not hewing to conservative principles, we're going to lose this year, but I'm the guy for the future'–the guy who has the best chance at being that guy, I think is this guy [Mike Huckabee]."

  22. languagehat said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    This is not unprecedented

    Yes it is (except in similar blunders/typos that may have flared and faded unnoticed and uncommemorated in the past). I can't believe I'm the only one to point this out, but "It hews the line to a breadth of hair" has nothing to do with the "hew to" idiom we're discussing here; it uses the original 'cut' sense of the verb, and praises the sword for being sharp enough to cut a very slender object like a hair (a traditional test of blades).

    [(myl) I half agree. This isn't exactly the modern idiom "hew to NP" = "to adhere or conform strictly to". But neither is it the old "sharp enough to cut a hair". Rather, it's a live instance of the metaphor that gave rise to the "hew to NP" idiom — to cut accurately to a prescribed pattern — with the traditional "hair's breadth" idiom specifying how close to the pattern the blade is able to cut: "it hews [=cuts] the [pattern-prescribed] line to [within] a breadth of hair".

    And in more recent times, the to-less version is fairly common:

    …even here one finds a secret admiration for a man who coldheartedly hews the line. [1948]
    This procedure moves in a groove with Communist practices everywhere, for each national party hews the line of the model party. [1950]
    …we will help you in any way we can to see that REA hews the line and abides by its commitment… [1965]
    .. something that our grievance committees and our courts can look to in determining whether a lawyer's conduct hews the line of ethical practice. [1965]
    …the preface becomes a sort of manifesto that hews the line of orthodox surrealism. [1994]
    As Party's Leader, Dodd Hews the Line but with a Credible Touch. [1996]
    “Nobody's exempt. Not even you people. Everyone hews the line." [2012]

    Those examples lack explicit mention of the cutting implement, but the thought (in my opinion) is the same.]

    My guess is that "to hew to" was corrected to "to hew" by an editor unfamiliar with the idiom

    Mine too. This is not some change in usage we need to take account of; it is an error pure and simple.

  23. Brett said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 9:10 am

    Ø: "Slaying" is headlinese for homicide (not necessarily murder); I've never seen just "slay" used this way, however.

  24. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    Ralph Hickok: It is used that way in Britain as well, though not that often, as lacrosse is not a very popular sport, being associated with posh girls' schools. But according to Arabella Fotherington-Tomas's school song:

    Ho for bat, ho for ball,
    Ho for hockey and lax and all.

  25. Mr Punch said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    I chose D – a big cut; I am familiar with "hew to" but that sense requires a "to". I would not, of course, presume to say that the Post's usage is wrong, unless they happen to be in the communications business.

  26. Faith said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    @KWillets Hahahahah… Thanks, I needed that. @MYL, you should get a comment system that allows likes.

  27. L said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    What you're all missing about "hew jury's" is the dreadful pun on the defendant's name, George Huguely V.

  28. David Walker said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

    It looks like there is plenty of blank space after the second line of the headlinese-text there. Why was there no room for "to" or "heed"?

  29. John O'Toole said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    Wow, the third-rate poem by Carlyle Smith quoted to illustrate "hew the line" is partly pinched from the second stanza of a much better lyric by Lord Byron (sorry to stray slightly from subject, but the literary parallel is too tempting):

    So, we'll go no more a-roving
    So late into the night,
    Though the heart be still as loving,
    And the moon be still as bright.

    For the sword outwears its sheath,
    And the soul wears out the breast,
    And the heart must pause to breathe,
    And love itself have rest.

    Though the night was made for loving,
    And the day returns too soon,
    Yet we'll go no more a-roving
    By the light of the moon.

  30. pardonsoffice said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    To those of you wondering why the headline writer would need to truncate for space: those of us who write heads for online publication are limited to a certain number of characters to accommodate Google search algorithms. I don't know if that explains this particular head, but it does help explain why some print conventions persist on the web.

  31. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

    If this really is 'hew to', then it's just another example of "transitivizing P-drop", of which I have many examples: general discussion here.

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