January 06, 2004

Suspicion of charges

This morning my local radio station reported on someone who had been arrested "on suspicion of gang-related charges". Now that's an example of a currently very common sort of linguistic mistake that I actually do object to and think should be corrected. The charges are a fact -- ask the sherriff. The suspicion is that the charges might be true (but that's what the courts are for: they will start from the assumption that the charges are false and let the prosecution attempt to show otherwise). News sources, concerned (very properly) to protect the rights of the accused, are overdoing it to the point of getting the truth conditions wrong, as has often been noted before. Linguists may sometimes appear to be (and are often accused of being) protective of all sorts of usages that other people call "errors". I offer this case as a reminder that it's not that simple. I don't regard use of a prescriptively condemned but colloquially widespread syntactic construction as linguistically culpable; but I do blame radio news scriptwriters for putting together a sentence that does not even state correctly whether an arrested person has been charged or not. So don't say that linguists never seem to treat anything that occurs as wrong. I don't want there to be a suspicion of those charges.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 6, 2004 11:45 AM