Weak and wimpy language

« previous post | next post »

Language Log readers seldom have the opportunity to read The Billlings Gazette. So now’s your big chance. A recent article will tell you the way things are out here in the rugged mountain west. We don’t use weak, wimpy words in this part of the country. No, siree. We drink strong coffee, we drive power vehicles, and we don’t use weak, wimpy language.

Those who remember the fallen Montana war hero, Lt. Col. Gary Derby, recently killed in one of the many wars going on these days, have only good things to say about him, including the fact that he insisted that the troops under his command avoid weak, wimpy words, like “I think,” “I might,” and “maybe.” You have to be strong, firm, and optimistic if you’re going to command your troops. Lt.Col. Derby did this very well. But this got me thinking about what happens when academic linguists testify in lawsuits.
Academics are carefully trained to qualify the conclusions they make from their findings, using expressions like “a majority of,” “usually,” “often,” “may occur,” and “can affect.” Of course they usually can back up their words with numbers, percentages, and statistical measures, but it’s often difficult for them to be able to say that their findings lead to absolute conclusions on the scale of anything. Language, like much of social science, has to deal with many variables, mostly human, so arriving at absolute, black and white conclusions can be usually difficult, if not impossible.

Yet when linguists testify in lawsuits, they run smack dab into the conflicting goals of the legal system, where triers of the facts have to find defendants in criminal cases either guilty or innocent and opposing sides in civil cases have to either win or lose. This black and white situation is not what academics are used to.

Academic researchers are used to defining the problem they want to work on, then collect the data that is relevant to its solution. Not so in court cases, where the problem is the legal issue and the data, called evidence, usually has already been assembled for analysis. There’s not much linguists can do about that. They have to work with what’s given them. Working with trial evidence can be interesting, but it’s very different from the type of work that usually produces academic papers and books, where it’s obligatory to define the problem, to collect appropriate data, and to describe the variability and account for it. Absolute conclusions are uncommon in such work.

But when linguists take the witness stand, retaining lawyers often need more than this. That’s understandable, because lawyers need the linguistic analyses to come closer to absolute conclusions than experts may or should want to go. So sometimes testimony can become a battle between linguists who try to stay within the boundaries of acceptable academic behavior and the retaining lawyers, who need strong conclusions to support their own need for an absolute conclusion. Occasionally lawyers will push their expert witnesses to move closer to their own courtroom goal of winning, and this should not be surprising, for after all, the ethical principles of the legal profession require them to do the best job they can to win the case for their clients.

Unfortunately, some linguistics expert witnesses succumb to the temptation and join in with the advocacy of their retaining lawyers. When they do so, they abandon the ethical principles of their science. This is a great temptation that experts can slip into easily. But doing so can give all expert witnesses a bad name. When they join with the lawyers’ advocacy, they move closer to the common criticism of expert witnesses—only one more “hired gun.”

Now back to Lt. Col. Derby. He wanted his soldiers to be strong and firm. With the best of intentions, he wanted them to avoid language that is weak and wimpy. Stressing this may be very important for combat troops, where winning and losing are in the balance, and it also may be good for courtroom lawyers, where winning is the ultimate goal. But it doesn’t often fit well with scientific analysis, including the analysis linguists can present in lawsuit trials.

Postscript: You have may noticed that in this post, I, a linguist, have used weak and wimpy expressions over and over again. Look back, if you feel so inclined, and you’ll find a lot of usually, can, may, seem, some, and sometimes. Good thing I’m not a soldier or trial lawyer.

Comments are closed.