Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dealing with semantic wormholes in some Supreme Court decisions

I don’t think they’d qualify as “loopholes,” contrary to what a reader suggested online upon reading the first installment of my March 22, 2015 column in The Manila Times about egregious proofreading glitches in two rulings of the Philippine Supreme Court. The term “loopholes” means “ambiguities or omissions in the text through which the intent of a statute, contract, or obligation may be evaded,” but I think neither a missing “a” nor a subject-verb disagreement arising from misuse of the plural “were” would constitute a legally or logically defensible ground for such evasion.” I therefore suggested the the more innocuous term “semantic wormholes,” which the Urban Dictionary pejoratively defines—only the “wormholes” part, I must admit—as “a phenomenon that has a way of completely absorbing the attention of its user.” Is my nonlegal opinion sound or unsound? So you can figure that out yourself, I posted that column of mine, “Part 1: How to proofread questionable or downright wrong legalese,” in this week’s edition of the Forum. Do tell me what you think after you’ve read it. (March 22, 2015) 

Part 1: How to proofread questionable or downright wrong legalese

I received a well-meaning, constructive letter recently from a Supreme Court staffer asking if he could consult me once in a while when he’s in doubt about his work. Part of his job is to proofread court decisions and resolutions drafted by a ponente or the designated writer from among the justices.

The letter-writer, whose name I won’t disclose for obvious reasons, says he’s neither a lawyer nor an English major, so his proofreading is confined to just typos and grammar. “I used to be very strict,” he says. “I’d correct ‘back wages’ or ‘in so far’ into one word, and put a comma or period where I think it’s needed. This is because my idea of proofreading is that it’s for publication purposes; when the document gets printed, you can no longer correct it.”

He cited two very arresting examples (all italicizations mine): “Once, I came across the phrase ‘without authority so to do’ in a quoted Rule of Court. My immediate impulse was to correct it to ‘without authority to do so’ but when I checked with the Rules of Court, I found that it’s how it is written in Rule 27. In another instance, the decision in Diamonon v. DOLE has this phrase, ‘to serve the interests of a justice.’ The ‘a’ is certainly not needed there but you can’t change it because it’s as good as law. This is a very good example of how even the article ‘a’ can change meaning if used improperly.”

My comment: I checked those dubious usages and found that “so to do” and an even more curious variant, “to so do,” have precedents in British English and in American jurisprudence. Here’s a “so to do” usage by the University of Oxford: “The Green College Development Office will only issue information about Old Members when those Old Members give written permission so to do.” And here’s a “to so do” usage by a law of the State of Arizona: “Intentionally intercepts the deliberations of a jury or aids, authorizes, employs, procures or permits another to so do.” No matter how awful-sounding then, let’s allow both usages to pass unchallenged.

But as to the extraneous “a” in the Diamonon v. DOLE decision, it’s a very serious proofreading error that gives a derogatory sense to an appellate court’s broad discretionary powers in considering matters not assigned as errors on appeal, in effect allowing it to arrive “at a just decision and complete resolution of the case or to serve the interests of a justice or to avoid dispensing piecemeal justice.” The mere thought of a justice making a decision for his or her self-interest is too subversive to contemplate, so even if that offending “a” now forms part of the Rules of Court, it ought to be knocked off in the interest of justice, semantics, and good sense.

The letter-writer continues: “I began to be more lax when I noticed resentment in my being strict as evidenced by my simple corrections not being implemented, especially when it comes to subject-predicate agreement. This may just be a feeling, but it’s possible that because of their higher educational attainment, lawyers feel bad about being corrected by a nonlawyer.

“To illustrate, when I changed the verb ‘were’ to ‘was’ in the phrase ‘the alluded delay in the completion of the subject project were traceable to…,’ the correction was returned to me marked by an ‘x’ and with ‘the series’ added to ‘traceable’ to justify the use of the verb ‘were.’ (Your opinion, please.) So I just confine myself now to correcting very obvious mistakes, such as ‘the property can only be assessed through a narrow road’ (accessed), ‘hinge of doubt’ (tinge), and ‘the country’s national resources’ (natural).”  

We’ll take up more of his very instructive proofreading predicaments next week.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 21, 2015 issue © 2015 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tales of perdition

Tumultuous times like these, both here in the country and in many other places in the world, prompt me to hark back to a cautionary essay I wrote in the early 2000s, “The Strength of Materials and the People’s Folly,” where I bewailed our tendency as a people “to consign ourselves to the patently inferior choices and deceivingly attractive but bad decisions that ultimately make life so miserable for many of us.” It’s an essay that I think is as relevant and as timely as ever, so I’m posting it in this week’s edition of the Forum. (March 1, 2015)

The Strength of Materials and the People’s Folly

In the engineering discipline there’s this thing they call the strength of materials, or the ability of substances to withstand stress and strain. The maximum stress a material can sustain and still be able to return to its original form is called the elastic limit, and engineers designing structures—bridges and buildings, for instance—savagely subject them to forces beyond their ultimate strengths. For safety’s sake, they have models of the structures “tested to destruction.”

The closest popular expression of this that I can think of is the English idiom about “the last straw that broke the camel’s back.” The allusion is, of course, not only to the danger of overloading beasts of burden but also to the perils of blind, unconditional trust in the capacity of things and people to perform beyond their natural, God-given limits. The folly of such behavior is captured chillingly in this haunting English lullaby:

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall
Down will come baby, cradle, and all. 

Lewis Carroll, that humorous English mathematical logician, also captured this logic of destruction in this rhyme about the fallen Humpty Dumpty’s fate in Alice in Wonderland:

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Literature and history are, in fact, replete with accounts of tragedies resulting from a failure to recognize the limits to the strength of materials. In Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, for instance, five apparently morally faultless people on a religious pilgrimage plunge to their death when a suspension bridge over a deep canyon snaps. Afterwards, a cleric investigates if there was anything bad or evil the victims had done in their lives for them to deserve such apparently senseless deaths.

Little attention was given to the state of the bridging materials and to their possible deterioration over time, nor to the possibility that the victims might have been, say, excessively overweight, that they may have clustered too close to one another at a weak spot, or that they might have gone into such religious frenzies—as in the Mardi Gras or our very own Ati-Atihan—for the bridge to snap in sympathetic vibration. Any of these circumstances might have been “the last straw that broke the camel’s back,” so to speak.

A parallel incident with similar religious overtones happened in Naga City in the Philippines way back in September of 1972. Right after a fluvial procession in honor of Our Lady of Pe├▒afrancia, the region’s religious patroness, had passed underneath an old wooden bridge over the Bicol River, the bridge collapsed. Several dozen devotees and onlookers, most of them boys and girls, were crushed to death or drowned. To my knowledge, no religious investigation was done to connect their tragic fate to possible moral or reprehensible misdeeds in life, as was done by the cleric in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but just a few hours after the bridge collapsed, I went to the scene and this was what I saw: the wooden rafters and railings were severely rotted, split, or cracked after years of exposure to sun, wind, rain, and termites. To my mind, there was no way the badly decayed wood could have held the weight of those hundreds of people jostling one another in religious frenzy on the bridge or hanging from its rafters. The faith of the devotees was strong, but the materials of the bridge simply had become so weak for it.

In shipping as well, even the “battleship quality” steel of the ocean liner RMS Titanic fractured and broke when it struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic that fateful night on April 14, 1912, killing over 1,500 passengers aboard. The ship’s hull, although made of probably the best plain carbon ship-plate material available during the time, was damaged by the iceberg, and the rivet heads in the areas of contact simply popped off because of the tremendous forces created by the collision. This caused several seams in the hull to open up, flooding the ship’s watertight compartments. Because of their ductility, the rivets normally should have deformed first before failing, but according to some strength of materials analysts who examined materials from the wreckage many years later, they must have become extremely brittle in below-freezing water temperature. Their safety factor had been breached and they failed.

As in these tales of perdition, the danger to all of us is that we have been so mercilessly conditioned by popular culture, religion, and media to believe that everything is possible. We hardly put any safety factor in our personal, social, and political affairs. We thrive and even revel in blind faith and wishful thinking. We observe no minimum and maximum measures, no standards, no limits to anything—be it a dream, a plan, a product, a support system, a mode of conveyance, an advocacy, or a vote or aspiration to an elective post. In sum, we don’t think logically and rationally. We consign ourselves to the patently inferior choices and deceivingly attractive but bad decisions that ultimately make life so miserable for many of us.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the The Manila Times. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 151 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.