Thursday, 3 July 2014

Use of English

Years ago I had a subscription to Punch magazine, its arrival was always a welcome bit of light relief on a Friday.  At one time there was a fuss being made about the difficulty of understanding certain documents sent out by the UK government, that used unnecessarily obscure language.  An article in Punch took the micky, suggesting that what was needed was, in fact, a more widespread use of "civil service-ese", and proposed a new version of a well-known English poem:

I can recall, in duplicate, the domicile of my nascency,
The exiguous aperture through which the sun's rays penetrated ante meridian....

My take is that statements coming out of the civil service (i.e. government) aren't necessarily intended to be hard to understand, but I believe they are often designed to mislead.  That is, if you draw any conclusion from them other than exactly what is said, you are likely to come a cropper.

A recent case in point is in relation to the government's desire to take money they believe might be owed to them, directly from your bank account, rather than having to go through the tedious process in a court of law, of proving that you owe it.   A statement ran along the lines of    "We won't take the full amount (claimed) if it leaves a total of less than £5,000 in the accounts."   Most people take this to mean that a victim will always be left with at least 5 grand, but it doesn't.   If it helps, consider what the government would have to do to break this rule: they would have to take the full amount claimed and thereby leave less than 5 grand in your account.  The rule doesn't say anything about what happens if they take less than the amount they claim you owe, so, for example, if you have £5,000 in your accounts and they think you owe £6,000 they can bleed you white and leave you with nothing.

Another one that is in the spotlight at the moment is "in the public interest".   This phrase is sometimes used to explain why the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) doesn't take action against some high-ranking person who is faced with allegations of illegal activities.  People think that it means "to the benefit (in the interest) of the general public";  that is not what it means at all.  It hinges on the word "public", that can be a noun or an adjective depending on context.  If it were to be interpreted as a noun, then "interest of the public" is a posessive phrase, the "interest" belonging to the "public", so there should be an apostrophe: "the public's interest".  There isn't, because "public" is an adjective.  A brief spell (*ouch*) with a dictionary reveals that one of the meanings of the word "public" as an adjective is "pertaining to government".  There we have it.  "in the public interest" means "to the benefit of the government".

I take the word "government" to include politicians, the civil service, and I suppose these days we have to include fake charities.  The CPS is staffed by civil servants.   Why on earth should anyone expect that they would turn on their own?   The amazing thing is, in my view, that people accept an explanation that boils down to "there's nothing in it for us".

However, the CPS does not have a monopoly on criminal prosecutions.  Anyone can do it, the CPS just does it on behalf of the government, using taxpayers' money.   It would really cheer me up, if, one day, a bunch of people, perhaps lottery winners, would fund a prosecution of some of those people who the CPS won't touch.

1 comment:

James Higham said...

money they believe might be owed to them, directly from your bank account, rather than having to go through the tedious process in a court of law

Yes, this does seem the new frontier. It's a constant, one-way ratcheting.

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