Archive | October, 2014

Errors and omissions excepted

29 Oct


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Kevin Langston, the New York Post reports, who was given 15 years in jail for his part in a gun-running operation, “is about to get sprung from the slammer early”  because of a mistake: the court’s official record shows he was only given a sentence of five years. According to the Post, “prosecutors say the transcript showing the shorter term was missing a ‘1’ due to ‘an error by the court reporter’, who has since retired and can’t be found”.

The Brooklyn district attorney is clear that this is a straightforward mistake:

“It is our position that this defendant benefited from a court reporter’s error,” said a spokeswoman for DA Ken Thompson. Langston, she said, “heard the judge sentence him to 15 years. The sentencing judge gave him 15 years, and that is what he should serve.”

But the appeals court does not see it as being nearly so straightforward, and has now ruled that Langston had “acquired a legitimate expectation of finality” with the five-year sentence. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle points out, although the court did have the power to amend the errant transcript, it went uncorrected for seven years.

The ultimate decision in the case – the DA’s office is reportedly “weighing its options” – will be a complex one, likely to involve discussions of double jeopardy (for example, whether any change in the transcript would mean Langston was being sentenced twice for the same crime).  But the central problem is a very familiar one to anyone who, like me, used to work as a legal editor: in court, typos are not a trivial matter.

Years ago, while working on a book about bills of lading and maritime law, I was proofreading extracts from widely used bills quoted in the text against the original documents. Quite by chance, I discovered that a significant chunk of one popular bill’s terms and conditions had gone missing from the latest official reprinting of the form. They were present in our book, quoted from the previous version, but absent from the small type on the new document itself.

I drew the author’s attention to this as a curiosity. Somewhat to my surprise, he not only got in touch with the issuing authority – which confirmed this had been an accidental omission – but insisted on reopening that chapter to explain what was absent, concluding that, legally, “the effect of this is unclear, to say the least”. Whatever the upshot of a hypothetical dispute over the missing clauses on that form might have been, it was clear that they could not simply be taken as read.

In descriptivist linguistics, what is meant ultimately takes precedence over what is said: this is why double negatives become intensifiers, “head over heels” means “upside down” and “irregardless” means the same as “regardless”. But in law, and in legal editing, it is frequently the other way round. What is said can trump what is meant – even if there was no confusion about intent; even if there was a mistake. This is why when you’re editing a court report – or writing a headline that might one day appear before a judge – descriptivism may not be enough to save you. When the lawyers are hovering, it’s not enough to know what you meant; you have to know what you’ve said.



Publish the bans

9 Oct

Most things aren’t banned,  not even in style guides. They’re “best avoided”, “not preferred”, “overused”, but not banned. House style expresses choices, counsels caution on homonyms, or corrects misunderstood facts and lazy thinking, but those don’t count as prohibitions.

Style guide editors can be withering in the extreme about poor writing without actually proscribing it. The Tribune’s production editor, an expert in being withering, points out about the word “iconic” that it is “in danger of losing all meaning after an average three appearances a day” in the paper. He then, in a separate entry, appends a list of everything we described as iconic “during a heady fortnight in 2010”, which appears to have included bluefin tuna, Kraft cheese slices, Nigel Slater and the parliamentary constituency of Hove. But even that doesn’t result in an outright ban:  “Our advice, even if our own writers rarely follow it, is to show a little more thought, and restraint, in using this term”.

Even with swear words and offensive terms, although there are adjurations to be very careful, we are permitted to print them in full when (for example) reporting stories about hate speech or disciplinary hearings.

No: a proper ban is a blanket prohibition on a word or phrase wherever it appears, even in its correct meaning. A strict-liability offence. And even in our style guide, there are some. This is what’s listed as banned – actually banned – at the Tribune.

authoress along with comedienne*, manageress, lady doctor and male nurse

full-blown Aids essentially meaningless: “people have Aids only when they present with an Aids-defining illness” (Unesco)

black-on-black violence “Imagine the police saying they were ‘investigating an incident of white-on-white violence between Millwall and West Ham supporters'”

committed suicide “suicide has not been a crime in the UK for many years”

dialogue of the deaf  “most deaf people are perfectly capable of conducting a dialogue”

the disabled Use “disabled people”

happy-clappy “avoid”

kaffir lime replace with makrut lime

lepers say “leprosy patients”

mentally handicapped say “person with learning difficulties”

Mid-East “never, even in headlines”; always Middle

north of the border “avoid this expression: we work on national newspapers”

persons “No! They are people”

post-ironic “idiotic”

practising homosexual along with “the equally grotesque ‘active homosexual'”

Siamese twins use “conjoined”

shark-infested on the grounds that a creature cannot “infest” its original habitat

skyrocket “No!”

spinster “has acquired a pejorative tone”

squaw now regarded as offensive

third world described as “outdated (as well as objectionable)”

wrinklies “patronising, unfunny way to refer to elderly people; do not use”

* The phrase “feminist comedienne” recently got quite a long way through the production process before being intercepted.