“To-may-to” or “To-mah-to”?

Photo by Tincho Franco from unsplash.com

A brain worm has occupied my cerebrum over the past couple of months. Its conception resulted from the death of a dear friend who was more than a decade older than I. His wife called to inform me of his passing and then proceeded to give me too much information as to what had occurred. They had apparently engaged in a bit of strenuous activity during the night and in the morning my friend failed to wake up. She felt that she was somewhat at fault. I assured her (while struggling to keep the smile out of my voice) that, even if she had been the cause of his departure, I was sure her late husband would have preferred that sendoff to, say, a fiery car crash (which is the comparison Richard Pryor made when his father passed under similar circumstances). 

My friend’s wife then asked me for some advice about his obituary. Her issue was whether she should say that my friend passed “suddenly” or “unexpectedly.” She was worried that someone might think that he had committed suicide and wanted to be sure she used the right word. My off-the-cuff response was that she should avoid using either and just list his date of birth as “sunrise” and his date of passing as “sunset.” She liked that and told me that her husband used to tell her that I always knew just what to say. 

I actually dodged a bullet. I was unsure about the answer to her question. I subsequently started to obsess over what the difference may or may not be when one uses either “suddenly” or “unexpectedly,” particularly when describing the occasion of a death. They seem to be used interchangeably, particularly when the individual being memorialized has voluntarily gone ahead, as it were. 

I’ve done a couple of deep research dives into the topic and found opinions to be all over the place. The two words appear to mean the same thing at times, though not always. My favorite passage in an English language novel, that being the conversation between Bill and Mike in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, illustrates this. Mike, in response to a question from Bill, tells Bill that he went bankrupt “gradually, and then suddenly.” If Mike had used the word “unexpectedly” instead of “suddenly” it would have been wrong since if one starts to go bankrupt, the completion of the process is not unexpected, though it can happen suddenly. It’s different, however, in many other cases generally — an earthquake or tornado, to name but two — and in obituaries involving someone who takes their own life. It seems as if either adverb could appropriately be used.

I’ll apologize for being morbid, but when you are reading an obituary and see that someone died “unexpectedly” or “suddenly” do you assume that they passed of their own volition? Is one word more appropriate than the other in those cases?  Or do they usually mean the same thing? Is it a case of “to-may-to” vs. “to-mah-to”? You don’t have to justify your answer though I am sure the reasons one way or the other would certainly be interesting. 

Thank you. Be well, happy, and good to yourself. Remember the oxygen mask rule: put yours on first and then assist others. 

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz from unsplash.com

But wait! There’s more. I will be absent on Saturday, August 8, as I am relinquishing this space to the always quietly gracious Joe Moore, who will reflect on TKZ’s very special anniversary which happens to land on that date. I will also be gone on Saturday, August 22, when Lisa Black, one my favorite authors and people (as we all know, that isn’t always the same thing!), will be discussing a topic which provides the driving force behind Every Kind of Wicked, which is Book Six in her Gardiner and Renner series and which drops on August 25.  I’ll be back on September 5 and happy to see you.


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

31 thoughts on ““To-may-to” or “To-mah-to”?

  1. Perhaps because I’m a glass-half-full kind of optimist, I hadn’t given the “reason” for one’s passing under suddenly unexpected circumstances this kind of thought or parsing.

    If asked, I’d’ve gone with heart attack (a la aerobics/runner Jim Fixx) or perhaps auto accident or plane crash.

    If it was “voluntary” (as you put it), perhaps “unexpectedly sudden” helps assuage any guilt for not seeing what the recently departed was wrestling and coming to their aid (though sometimes you can see and do to no avail).

    And thanks for the heads up on your August hiatus (protecting us from speculating on your suddenly unexpected absence). Enjoy the time “away” – you will be missed… but not mourned. ?

    Stay safe. ?

  2. First! Thanks, George. If you haven’t spent a great deal of time dwelling on this matter it speaks very highly of you!

    I would definitely rather be missed than mourned, at this point. Thanks.

    Also…I didn’t know that about the Georgia pronunciation of tomato…I enjoy encountering regional dialects. New Orleans has several within the city, to the extent that you can often tell the neighborhood where someone grew up by their accent.

    Be well and safe!

  3. Until you posted this, I confess I’d never had a thought about how I’d interpret those words. Then again, I don’t spend much time reading obituaries. Maybe I don’t want to see my name there. So, a non-answer.

    • Terry, that’s not a non-answer, that’s a good answer. I probably spend too much time reading obituaries! Thanks!

  4. First, my condolences on your loss. The loss of our friends is a sure sign we’re not as young as we once were and are still as difficult as when we were young.

    As to your question, I don’t differentiate between either word in an obit in terms of assuming self-demise. Maybe I’m too concrete but I take it at face value and leave it at that.

    As for August, know you’ll be missed as I always look forward to your Saturday posts. But it gives me another reason to be excited about September. Enjoy

    • Douglas, thanks so much! You’re too kind.

      I do miss my friend. He was truly an original gangster. At one point he was employed by an organized crime figure, did stand-up time in prison, and on release changed the course of his life and got a college degree. He needed two canes to walk during the past couple of years but still managed to swagger. He probably still does.

  5. Good morning, Joe.

    Like others, I had not given this any thought. Heart disease is one of the most common causes of death, and many “heart attacks” are “unexpected.” 10% of them end in sudden death. That’s “suddenly.”

    I always look at the end of the obituary, to see which charity the family has picked for donations, to find a clue as to the cause of death,

    Thanks for making us think. Enjoy your vacation from TKZ. We look forward to reading your next post on September 5. Safe travels, and stay healthy!

    • Good morning, Steve. Thank you. I was hoping you would weigh in because of your vocation. What you said makes sense, particularly about the charity indicating the possible cause of death. Be well!

  6. First, I am so sorry for your loss, Joe. {{{hugs}}}

    When I read one of the two words you mentioned, I do tend to think either suicide or accidental drug overdose unless it’s followed by something like, “after a long illness.” The overuse of “suddenly” and “unexpectedly” in that context has conditioned me to think that way. Kinda sad, actually.

    Enjoy your time off!

    • Thank you so much, Sue. You’re right, the terms are overused, particularly “unexpectedly.” I mean, it’s going to happen sooner or later, right? I prefer later.

      I will be absent from TKZ but not gone! Or maybe vice versa…

  7. Have a great time, Joe!

    Having experienced a close-up-and-personal family suicide, my brain immediately assumes the possibility of suicide as cause of death when either of these words are used.

    Another phrase that raises the suspicion is “gone too soon”.

    Really glad the maxim 99% of bad things you fear will happen never do is usually true.

    • Thank you, Deb. My sympathies for your loss, which I’m sure was horrific.

      Re: “gone too soon”…I wonder how many people have had to resist the temptation to add “…but not soon enough!” I am so bad…

  8. Hi Joe,

    B/c friends know I’m a writer, I’m frequently asked to write obituaries. My husband calls me the obituary editor but he reassures me that’s better than being the son of obituary editor.

    So far, I haven’t had to address “suddenly” vs. “unexpectedly.” However, in your friend’s case, I vote for “unexpectedly.” In our area, a shocking number of 30-ish young men have committed suicide. “Suddenly” is the word of choice in those sad instances.

    Several acquaintances have gone out in the same inglorious way poor Elvis did, sitting on the throne. Thankfully, I wasn’t asked to write their obits.

    Sorry about the loss of your friend but he certainly left with a smile on his face!

    You will be missed. Have a wonderful vacation.

    • Hi Deb, that’s interesting that you are often asked to write obituaries. Thanks for your insight — makes perfect sense — and your kind words. I will still be around!

  9. Volcanos can explode both suddenly and unexpected, given the tens of thousands of years that pass between eruptions. Eighty year old men can pass suddenly, but I’m hard pressed to call it “unexpectedly.”

  10. In our city, we used to have a radio personality–I call him that because, for decades, he was a disc jockey, and then he went into talk radio and didn’t play music anymore.

    After I graduated from college and he was still a disc jockey, I used to write funny little nonsensical things and send them to him. He would read most of them on air, make humorous comments, and always said thank you to me after his reading and comments.

    Once, I happened to write something for the station and won a prize. I went down to pick it up. He had heard I was in the building and, as my arrival happened to coincide with the end of his program, he made his way out of the studio to meet me. He shook my hand and told the station people who I was and what I had done. He was both gracious and complimentary. I left feeling very good about having met him.

    Three decades later, apparently some horrendous crisis caught up with him and his wife–some of his friends or associates may know what it was–and they chose to take the route of suddenly ending the problem in the bedroom of a local hotel, with two pistols. Needless to say, the shock of their passing was widespread across our valley, not because of his celebrity, but because they were nice people. He and his wife were genuinely mourned in the several communities in which they were active.

    It didn’t matter that their passing was both unexpected and sudden. What did matter, at least to me, was the true loss we all felt.

    On the anniversary of their passing, I go to YouTube and I play a song written by a late Hawaiian artist that our friend played on the air every morning for many weeks, following a vacation he and his wife took in Hawaii. In those moments, suddenly and unexpectedly have no meaning to me. I just miss them.

    • Thanks for sharing that story, Jim. I would imagine it really rocked your world, particularly because you met him That’s tragic.

  11. Hmm…good question. I don’t read that many obituaries but when I do, typically I am reading one of an older relative so they are usually neither sudden nor unexpected. Both words pique curiosity because the inner detective is trying to figure out what that means. However, the inner detective quickly begins rationalizing by saying “Oh, he must have had a heart attack or something,” etc.

    I’ll be curious to see other people’s perspectives. If I have to use one of the two words, I would gravitate toward “unexpectedly”. Many years ago I lost an Uncle due to a terrible accident when a tree fell on him. However, I don’t have a copy of an obit to know how that was handled. But if I were going to use either of the 2 words, I would go with unexpectedly. Somehow it softens the blow, just a little, moreso than the abrupt ‘suddenly’.

    That could be a tool for a writer–I can picture a mystery solver character in a book reading an obituary during the course of their investigation and seeing it written as the person died “suddenly”, which might clue the character in that whoever wrote the obit wasn’t close to the deceased.

    Oh boy. Now I can see I’m going to want to go traipsing off & reading obits so I can see what the patterns are. LOL!

    • Thanks for sharing, BK. I’m sorry about your uncle. I do some of my own tree work and have had a couple of near hits even though I was being careful at the time. It must have been a shock. Also, thank you for sharing your story idea!

  12. Hi, Joe

    Condolences on the loss of your friend. To me, “suddenly” and “unexpectedly” also both imply a not of their own volition aspect to the death. Passed away is more neutral; though, just like when a coworker suddenly resigns, we want to know more about why/how. I liked your sunrise and sunset solution.

    Died from natural causes would be more specific without too much information.

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post, which, among other things, proves that words do indeed matter 🙂

    Have a fine time off!

    • Hi Dale, thanks so much for your kind words which are much appreciated. I like your “natural causes” solution.

      Re: the co-worker resigning…I agree. A radio personality who I have been listening to for decades suddenly announced his retirement this week and I’m wondering why as well since no reason was given. Not that he didn’t deserve a break after a quarter-century…

  13. I’d argue it’s “time” versus “emotional reaction to event,” but, frankly, both words are useless and can be deleted except in rare cases. Almost everything is both sudden and unexpected according to human nature. We are a species who never grow out of being surprised at a world filled with “peek-a-boo” moments.

  14. Thank you, Marilynn. Actually, my next post, which I am working on now, is going to discuss one of those moments…

  15. Losing a friend is hard, Joe, and takes time to process. In our town, the cause of death is never listed…oh, and by the way, when I get my paper I first read the obits then the comic strips. Every. Time. Although yesterday there was an obit that read: died suddenly of natural causes. The family must have thought readers would suspect suicide and wanted to make it clear.

    I always look forward to your Saturdays and will miss you while you’re gone.

  16. Thank you so much, Patricia. You are easy to please. I don’t get a paper — I read the obits online — but if I did I would certainly read the comic strips and probably stop there…

    I will miss you as well. Be safe. See you soon!

  17. I am sorry for the loss of your friend, Mr. Hartlaub, but I have to agree – I cannot imagine a better way to go.

  18. As it turns out, I lost my best friend to cancer about two weeks ago. I truly do feel our mutual pain. He and I did all the bad boy teenage things as we grew up together. We grew apart as life happened, but I still love him like a brother.

    Now: unexpectedly is out because it says nothing. Suddenly. There is only one proper use of the word and that is as the title of a rather good Frank Sinatra movie. My friends wife offers a good way to handle this in obits. Say what happened. He died in his sleep of a heart attack, as an example.

  19. Brian, I am so sorry for your loss. That has to cut deep. Thanks for sharing and be well.

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