Tuesday May 15, 2012
Court reporting: Proper grammar usage
By FADZILAH AMIN
Can a cheating husband have intimate relations with a guest relations officer (GRO) while his wife ‘is conceiving’?
AMONG the crimes committed against adults and children alike, such as murder, rape, assault, kidnap and so on, “molest” is not included. This is because “molest” is a verb, not a noun, and the names of crimes (like other names) must be nouns.
Yet how many times do we read in our newspapers and websites about someone being found guilty of “molest”? The word that should have been used is “molestation”. I have consulted more than a dozen dictionaries, British and American, but cannot find any that says “molest” is a noun in its present meaning.
The Oxford English Dictionary does have a record of the word as a noun when its meaning was broader, i.e. “trouble, hardship; ... injury”. But that sense is now obsolete or at best archaic, its last recorded use being 1865. The most common meaning now of “to molest someone” is to “assault or abuse” that person sexually (Concise Oxford Dictionary).
The word “molestation” is widely used in court reporting in Britain and United States. For example, a headline in the online Guardian of June 13, 2005 reads “[Michael] Jackson cleared of child molestation” and one in the online Los Angeles Times of Dec 1, 2011 reads: “Manager of young actors arrested in molestation case”.
However, the words “murder”, “rape”, “assault” and “kidnap” can be used as nouns or verbs, and that is why they are used both for the names of the crimes, as well as for the actions involved in committing the crimes. For example, we can say: “Someone was murdered/raped/assaulted/kidnapped along this road last week,” OR “There was a murder/a rape/an assault/a kidnap (or a kidnapping) along this road last week.” What a dangerous road that must be!
There is also a sentence structure commonly used in court reporting in Malaysia that makes me feel uneasy. The following is a typical example: “He was fined RM10,000, in default 10 months jail.”
I once asked a Malaysian court reporter why this structure is used in her reporting. She said that the police officers in the court used it, and so she assumed that it must have been the right structure.
I wasn’t, and am not, convinced that this is a good reason to continue using the structure. “In default” means “guilty of default” (COD), which means guilty of failure to fulfil a legal requirement. Given this meaning of “in default”, something else must be added to the sentence to make it meaningful.
I searched the Internet to see how native speakers of English write reports of similar punishments using “in default”. Take, for example, this newspaper account of the end of Lord (Jeffrey) Archer’s 2001 trial for perjury and perverting the course of justice:
“The judge, Mr Justice Potts, said the case was ‘the most serious offence of perjury I have experienced’ and that he must serve at least two years. ... He ordered Archer ... to pay £175,000 towards prosecution costs with an extra year’s jail in default.” (telegraph.co.uk, 20 July 2001, italics mine).
This is grammatical, and much clearer than our standard formulation. Another example comes from a report of the sentence imposed on a jewel thief: “Gould has been ordered to repay the £10,500 within six months or face nine months in jail in default of payment.” (from an online Yorkshire local newspaper, italics mine)
The last example comes from Britain’s Law Society Gazette: “Taking into account all relevant material before the court, the judge’s order would be varied to impose a fine of £10,000 on the company and one of £2500 on the second defendant that was to be paid within six months in default of which he would serve 28 days’ imprisonment.”
The examples clearly show that there is a variety of ways of using “in default” to express the idea of being sent to prison when one does not or cannot pay one’s fines or any other payment ordered by the court.
Another practice in court reporting that makes me uneasy is when someone who has been given a jail sentence but has not served it (because he is appealing against it) is said to have been “jailed”. This can be very confusing to the reader. The dictionaries agree that “to jail someone” is to actually put him in prison, not just to sentence him to a term of imprisonment.
This practice is not confined to Malaysian court reporting. Even the best media websites in English-speaking countries are sometimes guilty of it. The case of Lord Archer that I discussed earlier was reported by the BBC website in the following way:
“Millionaire novelist Lord Archer has been jailed for four years after being found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice... Lord Archer’s solicitor, Tony Morton-Hooper, said outside the court that his client planned to appeal....” (19 July 2001)
If he had planned to appeal, surely Lord Archer had not yet been jailed at the time the report was written. The BBC should have written “has been given a jail sentence” instead of “has been jailed.”
Let me end with some comments on a local report of a 2010 Malaysian court case. I hope MOE reader I. Ho would not mind my discussing part of the newspaper cutting that he sent me some time ago. It illustrates the common Malaysian misuse, not of a legal term, but of the verb “to conceive”.
While one of the meanings of “to conceive” is “to become pregnant”, many Malaysians wrongly think that “is conceiving” means “to be pregnant”. Biology lessons tell us that the moment of conception of a baby is when a sperm fertilises an egg, and that usually happens when a husband and wife are together.
This is how the report of the court case begins (I have removed the names): “The former husband of a model and TV presenter yesterday admitted having relations with a guest relations officer (GRO) from China while his wife was conceiving.”
If we take “while his wife was conceiving” to mean the moment of conception, how is it physically possible for this man to be with his wife and cheat on her at the same time? As they say in American English: “Go figure!”
Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.