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.

No comments:

Post a Comment