03 September 2009

Exempli Gratia: Lawyers vs. Communicators

The recent controversy over the language of the ballot initiative handcuffing rail efforts in Cincinnati highlights, in my opinion, the difference between the goals of a lawyer, and the goals of a communicator. A lawyer serves his client. He is precise where precision is needed and imprecise where it benefits his cause.

The controversy centers around the following highlighted phrase in the ballot language (emphasis mine):

The City, and its various Boards and Commissions, may not spend any monies for right-of-way acquisition or construction of improvements for passenger rail transportation (e.g., a trolley or streetcar) within the city limits without first submitting the question of approval of such expenditure to a vote of the electorate of the City and receiving a majority affirmative vote for the same."

Opponents of the amendment have argued that the phrase is misleading. One issue is that by specifically calling out trolley or streetcar they are leading folks to believe that is the sole thing impacted, though “passenger rail transportation” has a far broader meaning.

COAST maintains that the use of “e.g” clearly indicates that they are two examples of a larger population. But this leads to the second issue. While “e.g” may be commonly used and understood in contracts, non-lawyers constantly confuse it. So, one would expect that the average citizen could misunderstand the phrase on the ballot.

Despite the protestations of COAST, I have been a technical communicator for 20 years. and long ago learned that people (very smart people) are confused by “e.g.” and “i.e.”. The abbreviation “e.g.” means “for example” while “i.e.” means “that is”. So again, you would expect a lot of readers of this ballot issue to read “e.g., a trolley or streetcar” as meaning only trolley or streetcar projects are impacted by this amendment. This is further exacerbated by COAST’s constant reference to the amendment as being anti-streetcar.

You can read a longer treatment of the recent meeting at Building Cincinnati.

I was especially amused by the following quote from that post:
"The language is an extremely simple sentence," Finney said. "It speaks for itself. These people feigning that they can't somehow understand the Queen's English, it seems to me to be a bit contrived."
It seems a little out of touch to me. 1. it is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase, and 2. last I checked Cincinnati was not part of the English realm.


5chw4r7z said...

"Even an 8th grader knows what e.g.means"
That was the exact quote that forced me to look it up. Now I'm as smart as an 8th grader.

5chw4r7z said...

One more thing, love em or hate em, COAST has done their homework, lets hope we can educate everyone on how dangerous this amendment would be.

CityKin said...

I knew the difference between ie and eg, still, the effect, especially with the use of the word trolley is purposefully misleading.

The language of our City Charter should be plain and clear. "eg"s have no place in our City Charter.

Mark Miller said...

^ There are already 7 other instances of "e.g."

If this passes, it will be the 8th.

Mark Miller said...

There are 10 uses of "i.e."

No wonder things are such a mess.

bsherm said...

@citykin, I don't care about 'e.g.' in the charter, it is a legal document, and e.g. is a common legal abbreviation. Little chance of confusion there. It is it's use in the ballot language that is potentially misleading.

CityKin said...

what percentage of voters will think this applies ONLY to "trolleys and streetcars", if it is put on the ballot exactly as written?

I would guess 25 to 50%.

Another good question would be, what percentage of the people that signed the petition believed it only applied to "trolleys and streetcars"? I mean you all advertised it as the trolley petition.

Radarman said...

The whole amendment is cynical. Its drafters wrote the proposed charter amendment knowing that voters in general, and Cincinnati voters in particular, are poorly informed at the moment of voting and will base their decisions on the emotions of the moment.

Quim said...

The 2 examples are both light rail. A better and clearer set of examples would have included light rail, heavy rail & whatever animal drawn rail is called.
I doubt Finney really thinks that everybody who signed those petitions really read & understood what they were signing.

VisuaLingual said...

It's sort of funny to hear a reference to Queen's English in a town that's known for its adults asking each other where they went to high school.

CityKin said...

^agreed. I wonder if he said it with a high-English patrician accent. BTW, where did Finney go to HS? That should tell us all we need to know about him.