Etymology Usage

A word pileup on the traffic report

Q: As I listen to traffic reports, my teeth are set to grating by the phrase “an accident in the process of being cleared.” I understand (I think) that there’s nothing technically wrong with that phrase, but it’s a personal bugbear of mine. Grrr!

A: We can’t see anything grammatically wrong here, just an inelegant pileup of unnecessary words.

One would think, though, that a fast-talking traffic reporter trying to squeeze two minutes’ worth of words into a 60-second spot would be the last person to get wordy.

One could say “an accident being cleared” and dispense with “in the process of.” Or better yet, just say “an accident.” We’d assume it was being cleared, no?

We were once startled by a usage on a traffic report. Because of an accident (of course!), an exit ramp had been “coned off.” In other words, it had been blocked off by those orange traffic cones.

A bit of googling, though, produced hundreds of thousands of hits for “cone off” and “coned off.”

We couldn’t find the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary or the two standard US dictionaries we consult the most, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

However, the unabridged Collins English Dictionary (10th ed.) describes “cone off” as a British usage meaning “to close (one carriageway of a motorway) by placing warning cones across it.”

And it’s defined in the Cambridge Dictionaries Online as a phrasal verb meaning “to prevent traffic from using a road or area by putting special objects that are shaped like cones on it. Part of the road had been coned off for repair work.”

Live and learn!

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