To cede or concede? An editing question

The Washington Post on Friday had the latest update on a disturbing criminal, Robert Pettus, who was convicted of raping and killing a 77-year-old woman and more recently accused of sexually assaulting a fellow prisoner.

Here’s the sentence, though, that led a co-worker to lament the declining copy-editing standards at the Post:

This time, he says that he did not rape his cellmate in the D.C. jail and that the 48-year-old man, who had a history of mental illness, made the accusation to get out of the cell they shared because Pettus would not concede the bottom bunk.

 Wouldn’t “concede” be “cede” there, I was asked. And that led to an investigation of sorts. And my cautious verdict is this: The Post was wrong, but more vague than wrong.

The definitions of the words “cede” and “concede” have blurred somewhat. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that “cede” and “concede” each include “to yield or grant,” though each as a second definition.

The primary definition, according to that dictionary, clears things up a bit. For “cede” it is, “To surrender possession of, especially by treaty,” with “relinquish” listed as a synonym. For “concede,” it’s clearly not the meaning from the Post story: “To acknowledge, often reluctantly, as being true, just, or proper; admit.”

The Collins English Dictionary, then, says of “cede”: “[T]o transfer, make over, or surrender.” Of “concede,” it again doesn’t seem to fit with the Post: “to admit or acknowledge (something) as true or correct.”

At this point, it seems that “cede” would be correct, and the Post was wrong (or at least should have said “refused to concede the right to the bottom bunk.” But how have the terms actually been used in journalism?

A quick search of the New York Times and Washington Post show that generally, “cede” is used when dealing with tangible objects, such as land, property, or authority, whereas “concede” used in the matter of giving in on a point, detail, situation or argument. The Post in 2008 incorrectly used the term in a story about then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama and the Democratic Pennsylvania primary (assuming the story wasn’t about Obama ceding military control of the state).

So really, given the wording, the Post has no good argument for using “concede.” But I’m wondering if the context is missing. Perhaps Pettus was arguing that he refused to concede the other inmate’s philosophical right to the bunk, rather than it being a physical dispute to gain control of the bunk. “Yielding,” in that case, would be more of an argument than of property — especially since, really, neither inmate owns anything in their cell.

But without those details, the Post goofed. A big error? Nope — after all, the secondary definition makes the usage OK. But given that “cede” is a simpler word — and given that saying “give up” would have avoided the whole issue — it’s an unfortunate mistake to make. Hang in there, WaPo.

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