March 09, 2008

Reading the government's mind

In Geoff Pullum's post, Per Bus Per Journey, he illustrates how organizations that try to communicate with the public find it hard to "see the world through other people's eyes."

It's not difficult to find instances of this all around us when we bother to look. Sometimes the language in question rises even to the level of lawsuits, as in the case of The State of Nevada Business and Transportation Authority v. Preferred Equities Corporation (Case No. 10699) a couple of years ago. The defendant was a Las Vegas condominium that provided free shuttle service to and from that condominium to and from the Venetian and Frontier casinos. Nevada state inspectors investigated this service and charged Preferred Equities with violating the state code by:

1. Picking up non-authorized "customers" at the casinos and at the condominiums, and

2. Delivering "customers" from one of the designated casinos to the other one.

This charge was based on the State's interpretation of the following three subsections of the state code:

(c) The provider effectively limits the provision of transportation to its customers.

(d) Transportation is furnished only if the provider's place of business is the point of origin or the point of destination of the customer's trip.

(e) Each trip is between a place of business owned by the provider and one other  point.

The lawyer for Preferred Equities was concerned about what his clients must do in order to "effectively limit" the provision of free transportation to their customers (subsection c), whether the "trip" referred to in subsection (e) is different from the "customer's trip" referred to in subsection (d), and what the code meant by "customers."

Subsection (c) gives no indication of how a transportation provider might "effectively limit" service to its customers.  Without such an indication, the paragraph is like many faulty contract and code paragraphs: subjective and vague as to its intended meaning. "Limits" doesn't prescribe the actual restraints on providing transportation, nor does it specify any absolute boundary for whatever is to be limited. The Meriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary (MWCD) defines the verb, "limit," as:

1. To assign certain limits to; prescribe
2. a. To restrict the bounds or limits of;  b. To curtail or reduce in quantity or extent
Synonyms: restrict, circumscribe, confine
"Limit" implies setting a point or line beyond which something cannot or is not permitted to go.

In the code, "limit" suggests only that there is a boundary out there somewhere that should not be exceeded, but it doesn't tell us where it is or how the transportation service might breach it. In other words, the condominium's transportation provider had to imply the limit . . . or guess at it. The expression used in the code is semantically vague and is subject to multiple interpretations.

"Customers" offers similar problems. MWCD and American Heritage define a customer as "one that purchases a commodity or service" and "a person with whom one must deal." And we all know that shops refer to "customers" even when the customer is just looking around and doesn't even make a purchase. Subsection (c) doesn't specify whether those who use the transportation service must be actual purchasers of that service (but also note that the service is free), or whether they were friends of the actual customers and perhaps even potential customers.

"Trip" is equally vague in the code (subsection e). The State's investigators claim to have found riders who violated this subsection by riding from one casino to another rather than first returning to the condominium before starting a different trip to the other casino.  There is no indication in the code about whether a trip is defined from the perspective of the rider or from the perspective of the provider. If the code writers had intended to mean a trip made by the provider rather than the traveler, they could have done so clearly, just as they defined trip in section (d) as "the customer's trip." The code could have clarified this by saying, "each trip made by the provider is to be between  a place of business owned by the provider and only one other point." But because they identified "trip" previously in subsection (d) as the customer's trip, the reader, absent any other marked clues, is encouraged to understand "trip" in subsection (e) to continue to mean the customer's trip, not the provider's.

Specific to this case, a more explicit wording would have helped ensure that customers would not be picked up at the Venetian and driven to the Frontier, for example. A more explicit wording would also indicate that the provider could not make two stops, one at the Venetian and another at the Frontier, on any "trip" from the condominium, if that's what the code intended.

The problem is unfortunately common. Laws, codes, and statute are not usually written or reviewed by language specialists, who would be able to point out instances where they are unclear, vague, or ambiguous. And it seems likely that this Nevada code failed, as Geoff put it, "to see the world through other people's eyes."

P.S. This case is one of the 18 civil lawsuits I describe in my book, Fighting Over Words (Oxford U Press, 2008).

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 9, 2008 11:14 PM