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Robbing 'Hood: Words Involving Theft

Trying to teach journalists the finer points of law is nearly as hard as trying to teach them the finer points of math. So the advice often is boiled down to overly simplistic "rules": A house is "burglarized," but a person is "robbed."

While that usually is correct legally, it's not so cut-and-dried linguistically.

Though different jurisdictions have different legal definitions, for the most part a "burglary" is the act of entering a premise with the intent of committing a crime. You don't have to break in, and you don't have to actually steal anything to be a "burglar."

"Robbery" usually means "the felonious taking of personal property by force or threat of force from the immediate presence of the victim," as Garner's Modern American Usage puts it. (And since its author, Bryan A. Garner, is also a lawyer and the editor of Black's Law Dictionary, he knows whereof he speaks.) But people will also say "my house was robbed," even though they were not home at the time, and the house is not the victim.

The Associated Press Stylebook recognizes this theft usage: "In a wider sense," it says, "to rob" "means to plunder or rifle, and may thus be used even if a person was not present: His house was robbed while he was away."

"I was robbed" sounds right, but "my house was burgled" sounds funny to American ears. Garner's says its usage here is usually "facetious or jocular." Webster's New World College Dictionary calls "burgle" use "informal." But "burgle" is standard British English, so it's not "incorrect." Americans can claim "burglarize," which traces to the early 19th century and is less-often heard in British English.

You do not, however, "rob an iPhone" from someone. You "rob her of her iPhone." Even though the "iPhone" is the object of the robbery, it is not the object of the transitive verb "rob."

Both "robbery" and "burglary" involve theft, which in legal terms is usually called "larceny." Many people think of "larceny" as something more akin to a swindle than a hold-up, but, unlike "burglary" and "robbery," which include hints of how the crime was carried out, "larceny" is purely the taking of something that does not belong to you by unlawful means, whatever they be.

"Larceny" is often small, but whether to spell its qualifier as "petty" or "petit" is often a matter of debate. Most dictionaries say they are synonymous, and the AP says it prefers "petty larceny" "based on an archive check." Garner's says "petty" is usually the British spelling and "petit" the American one, though AP's archives apparently beg to differ.

The best way to decide, though, is to see what the local criminal code says. New York, for example, has a crime called "petit larceny" but other offences that it calls "petty." Other places spell it "petit" in formal documents and "petty" in others.

It's a small matter which way you spell it, unless you're a lawyer — or a criminal.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 28th 2013, 2:09 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
petit is in fact the french word for petty. i feel we should use petty for correct english usage.
Monday January 28th 2013, 2:26 PM
Comment by: Layne G.
The crimes of robbery and burglary are not the same thing. A person can be burgled ( as strange as that sounds).
Monday January 28th 2013, 5:18 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Where does "steal" fit in? People tend to say "He stole my iphone," not "He robbed me of my iphone." Is steal a legal term?
Monday January 28th 2013, 5:57 PM
Comment by: Merrill P. (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all the comments. "Petit" is the legal term in some places, so that would have to change to use only "petty." We could, of course, do with far fewer "foreign" words in the law (anyone want to file an amicus curiae brief for that?). And yes, robbery and burglary are sometimes different, and a person can probably be "burgled" the same way a house is, thought that still sounds British to many ears. And (hi, Michael!) "steal" is theft of any kind -- it would usually take an object, the thing being stolen, but look at the idiom of something that's cheap -- it's a steal! Nounification strikes again! But few legal statutes have "stealing" as a crime: It's usually "theft", "larceny," etc.

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