Heath Ledger Was “Just” 28

January 22, 2008

According to CNN, there were two important breaking news stories today. The first was the emergency interest rate cute by the Federal Reserve, and the second was Heath Ledger’s death. I won’t get into why the second one is not important, but I just wanted to point out that CNN did not have a story on it so I went to one of my local TV station’s sites to see if there was an article on it. There was, and I was sort of interested in one particular sentence.

Now I understand that this was a fresh story that was breaking at the moment, but that doesn’t let the writers off the hook for getting some basic facts correct before they publish something. Take the following sentence:

He was pronounced dead at 3:26 p.m. in his downtown Manhattan residence by his housekeeper [...]

His housekeeper pronounced him dead? I’m fairly certain that in NY State only a doctor or someone with official medical training can pronounce someone dead. Perhaps he was “found dead” by his housekeeper?

But that’s not the sentence that bothered me. It was the one right before that:

The Australian-born actor was just 28.

Why was his age reported as “just 28”? Is there a hard-and-fast rule that people under a certain age are reported as being “just” x years old, and if so, what is that age? When does someone’s age stop being a “just” and start being just an age? If he were 34 would he still have been “just 34” or would he have been “34”? What’s the cutoff for getting the “just” in the sentence? Does it depend on the age of the author, and anyone younger than he/she is “just” x years old? Does it have to do with the circumstances of the death…for example, if a 68 year old woman was killed by a hit-and-run, would she be “just 68”? Or is it nothing more than just the whim of the writer, and on a different day he would have been “28” instead of “just 28”?

Update: I wrote to one of the authors of the story and asked why the “just”. Never got a response.