Statutes and limitations

6 Nov

File this one under “some things are just mistakes”:

A typographical error in Queensland’s new anti-bikie laws means gang members who commit grievous bodily harm will spend only one year in jail.

Laws targeting bikies were rushed through state parliament this month, skipping the usual parliamentary committee process designed to identify flaws, including typos.

The laws were supposed to say that gang members who committed grievous bodily harm or assaulted a police officer faced a minimum mandatory sentence of one year.

Instead, it says “the offender must be imprisoned for one year”.*

Last year, a reader and contributor to Language Log, Deniz Rudin, made a comment about prescriptivism – and, by implication, editing – that struck an uncomfortable chord with many of us working editors:

Prescriptivism … is a branch of etiquette columnry – prescriptivists advise us of what the more embarrassing solecisms are, so that we can in avoiding them be judged by the cultured to be one of their own.

In our current state of self-doubt – assailed by newsroom cost-cutters on one side and linguistics on the other – we editors rather cringed and retreated at this. Was it true? Was what we did simply to act as valets to the principals in a modern-day salon? Were we just dressing our writers to meet the Queen? But when necessary words actually go missing out of a criminal statute, it isn’t just a solecism. “Imprisoned for one year” isn’t widely understood to mean “imprisoned for a minimum of one year” in conversational usage. This isn’t a delicate matter of tone or register. Some things are just mistakes.

* Item first noted by former colleague Mary Hamilton (briefly “Scary Hamiltron” during the All Hallows festivities but now restored to herself). @newsmary is where it’s at.

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