John Larrysson's Column: The Confusing Use of Ex-

A headline in an English newspaper annoyed me. (In this article, and many language texts, an asterisk * before an example shows that it has a deliberate error as an example.)

*Ex-Japanese boxer jailed for cutting penis off wife’s lover and flushing it down toilet

My immediate question was: How did he stop being Japanese? Even if he gave up his citizenship, he would still be of the same ethnicity. "Ex-Japanese boxer" is not the same as "Japanese ex-boxer".

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Obviously, ex- is intended to modify the entire phrase Japanese boxer. The prefix ex- is capable of modifying an entire noun phrase (group of words referring to one thing), not just the word it is next to. However it is potentially confusing if the noun phrase is not a fixed expression. Using ex-prime minister is fine, because prime minister is a fixed expression. So is ex-boyfriend. It is recognised as a single word, even with a space in it (boy friend). One does not want to break apart such a word. For example: *prime ex-minister or *boy ex-friend would be meaningless. However Japanese boxer is not such a fixed expression. It can and should be broken apart to create Japanese ex-boxer.

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Other headlines that are examples of this problem include:

*Ex-Indonesian leader Suharto’s family ordered to pay back millions in embezzled funds

Spy blunder: *ex-North Korean army head, who Seoul said was executed, is alive


There could be a case made for using the phrase Ex-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Fugimori1 was a Peruvian of Japanese origin who became president of Peru. He was convicted of corruption and fled to Japan.

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I am advised that similar logical errors happen in Chinese newspapers too. The most common form of this error is Ex-company-name position. The correct use should be Company-name ex-position.


*Ex-Bayern boss Felix Magath takes charge at Chinese Super League heavyweights

*Ex-utility chief blamed for delayed mention of meltdown in Fukushima incident

These should be:

Bayern ex-boss Felix Magath takes charge at Chinese Super League heavyweights

Utility ex-chief blamed for delayed mention of meltdown in Fukushima incident

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The person is an ex-boss or ex-chief. They did not lead an ex-utility company or an ex-Bayern company. Also be careful of similar constructions, such as former, old, previous... Bayern's former boss is correct, but not *former Bayern's boss. People seem to love to put ex- in the front, for convenience, or as a habit. They do not think before they use it. This is a case of a logical inaccuracy, not an arbitrary grammar rule.

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1. Titles such as Mr or Mrs should not be used for convicted criminals. (John Larrysson Column: Common Titles - Mr )

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE:Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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