The secretary of state and its agents

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Posted in front of a government building in Sheffield, UK:


Possibility #1: By "Secretary of State", the author of the sign means "the Office of the Secretary of State".

Possibility #2: The sign was actually translated from Chinese.

Possibility #3: The author of the sign believes the Secretary of State to be a robot masquerading as a human person.

Possibility #4: You tell me…

The quasi-random distribution of italics, commas, and determiners should provide a clue, but it's not clear where it leads.

[h/t Adam Funk]



  1. AndrewD said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 5:26 am

    As A Briton I would assume that possibility 1 is correct given there are members of the Government who hold the office of Secretary of State.
    This does not preclude 3 being correct as well (We will leave UK poltics at this point).

  2. David Morris said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 5:31 am

    'It' is the new 'they' – an epicene 3sg pronoun.

  3. Emilio Márquez said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 5:38 am

    Possibility # 4: The Secretary of State is a baby whose sex is not known.

  4. Pete said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 5:53 am

    It's probably Possibility 1. But there's another problem: the bit about death and personal injury trails off without saying whose death or injury it's talking about. Reading it, I was anticipating the death or personal injury [of the drivers or passengers thereof] or similar, but nothing like that ever materialises.

    It seems the Secretary of State is not responsible for your death no matter where you park. So you may as well park here.

  5. mollymooly said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 6:04 am

    Standard legal boilerplate with "The Secretary of State" search-replaced in. An otherwise-identical example in these competition rules with "the Promoter".

  6. Tom Saylor said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 6:15 am

    I thought the intended antecedent of "its" was "State": agents and employees of the state won't be any more liable than its secretary.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 7:06 am

    If your vehicle or what's in it is lost or damaged or you die or are injured in its their car park, that will be due to its their negligence because it they did not prevent that from happening.

  8. leoboiko said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 7:23 am

    "It" is the proper pronoun for shape-shifting reptilian Illuminati.

  9. Jamie said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 7:52 am

    Possibility #4: it was written by a lawyer. (They have their [its?] own incomprehensible dialect.)

  10. Jeffrey Willson said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 7:57 am

    @Victor Mair

    I don't think I've ever heard the word "negligence" used in the broad sense of "not doing something;" nor do I find such a definition in my dictionary. The relevant definition in the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate is "failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances." If the car park is kept in good condition, etc., then there is no negligence.

  11. Dennis Baron said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 8:44 am

    The pronouns aren't the problem. The problem is that the sign suggests you could die by parking here, and it will be your own damn fault, not theirs. It's a parking lot, whose purpose is to offer parking. But it doubles as a memento mori: now instead of just parking and going inside to wait in long lines and not get what you came for (it's a government office, yeah?), you are also reminded of your mortality. Similar waiver of liability language appears in TOS agreements: we won't be responsible if using our product (an ebook, the internet) — or failure to be able to use our product (an ebook, the internet) — results in death or serious injury. It's what happens when you click "agree."

  12. Ellen K. said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 8:57 am

    I guess I assumed number one when reading and didn't even think that it might mean a person. What I noticed was that it seems to me there should really be a comma in there. And probably an "and" or "as well as".

  13. Alan Palmer said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 9:04 am

    It's obviously #1. As AndrewD says, several members of the government hold the job of 'Secretary of State for x', where x is a department such as Education, Health, Transport, etc.

  14. Mark Gould said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    Once in a while, Language Log covers something I know about. Today: the legal personality of the Crown and its Secretaries of State.

    It is important to note that, apart from the first sentence, this notice is intended for lawyers. General readers are supposed to understand only that parking here is a risky business.

    Lawyers reading on will learn that the assumed controller of the car park has limited its liability to the maximum extent permitted by law. (Excluding liability for acts of negligence causing death or personal injury is a breach of the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977.)

    If the car park were controlled by a company or a private individual, the notice could be written much more naturally — using pronouns corresponding with the reader's expectations of gender or otherwise. However, the knotty nature of the British constitution means that the personality of government bodies is much harder to express.

    Some government departments are creatures of statute, but many are expressions of royal prerogative. In order to make things run more smoothly, powers are conferred on the Secretary of State and that office is incorporated as a corporation sole (para. 3.28 of the Cabinet Manual). Corporations sole naturally take the impersonal pronoun.

  15. Mark Gould said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 10:50 am

    Addendum, following up on Victor Mair's and Jeffrey Willson's exchange.

    'Negligence' in this context is a tort, defined by centuries of case law into a principle largely congruent with the quotation from Merriam-Webster.

  16. Robot Therapist said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 12:07 pm

    Speaking of agents: should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 12:30 pm

    Corporations sole are rare but not non-existent in the U.S., at least in some jurisdictions. In some parts of the country (for contingent historical reasons and/or because of quirks of present-day local law) the secular legal form of a Roman Catholic diocese is not a "regular" non-profit corporation (or the specific variant version generally used in the particular state for religious congregations) named "Diocese of X" but is set up as a legal entity named e.g. "The Roman Catholic Bishop of X, a corporation sole." I once represented a well-known for-profit corporation being sued by such a corporation sole (not as interesting/scandalous as you might hope for church-related litigation – my client was a supplier of certain secular goods/services to certain parochial schools in the relevant diocese). But I don't think we had pronoun trouble, both because a) unlike the case with modern British cabinet members you don't have to assume that any given incumbent of the office might be female (I assume one thing going on here might be that they don't want to have to switch signs if the sex of the relevant incumbent office-holder changes); and b) as best as I can recall in most of our filings we just used "Diocese" as a defined-term synonym for the corporation sole, and then just used the pronouns you would naturally use for a diocese.

    For the purposes of certain sorts of U.S. litigation with the federal government, you don't as a formal matter make your claim against government as a whole or even the relevant department/agency but against the department/agency head (e.g. the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, or the Secretary of HHS), and when incumbents of those offices change mid-litigation and the new incumbent is a different sex than his/her predecessor, the courts will often change pronouns as appropriate (sometimes nunc pro tunc when describing prior events in the litigation), because federal judges are able to hire staff who have that level of nerdy obsessive attention to often-substantively-irrelevant detail.

  18. Michael Wolf said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 12:30 pm

    The quasi-random distribution of commas is indeed the clue: some were left out. Put commas between "State" and "its" and it reads much better.

  19. D.O. said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

    In other words, it is G.W.Gilbert in reverse.

  20. R. said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

    I suspect the sign was dictated to a transcriber who heard the possessive "State's" as two syllables. Maybe even transcription software?

    "The Secretary of State its agents" ends up sounding like an archaic possessive form ("Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry").

  21. Rubrick said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 4:27 pm

    Judging by the italics alone, I'd guess the sign was placed there by the Gideons.

  22. bratschegirl said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

    Hey, British car parks are deadly places. Just ask His Recently Disinterred Majesty Richard III.

  23. Scott said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 5:22 pm

    When I read this, I didn't have any problem with the "its", assuming possibility 1 without thinking about it. What bothered me, and what I thought the post was going to be about, was the phrase "The Secretary of State its agents and employees", which doesn't make any sense to me. Does it mean "The Secretary of State, [that is] its agents and employees"? I have trouble parsing it.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 5:57 pm

    I was aware of the legal meaning of "negligence", but my remark was intended in the spirit of many of the other commenters, tongue in cheek.

  25. Chas Belov said,

    May 16, 2015 @ 1:44 am

    That is a refreshingly short disclaimer. The disclaimers at garages here in San Francisco are much longer, perhaps three times as long. Of course, they are placed at the entrances to the garages such that if everyone attempting to use the garage were to actually read them, there would a long line are cars waiting to enter.

  26. Sidney Wood said,

    May 16, 2015 @ 5:47 am

    It's beautifully phrased. It means you won't ever sue it/them for anything because you'll need 20 years litigation first to get a court's decision on the meaning.

  27. Jim Manheim said,

    May 16, 2015 @ 7:28 am

    I think the anti-Oxford comma folks are broadening their attack by omitting the first comma in the series too. :)

  28. Rachel said,

    May 16, 2015 @ 8:32 am

    There is a possibility that I think has not been mentioned – related to what R above calls an 'archaic possessive form'. Some people are still of the conviction that the possessive 's' is an abbreviated form that in full uses the possessive adjective i.e. 'John's bike' is rendered 'John, his bike'. Clearly, this was never true but it used to be widely taught (in the U.K. at least, do not know about elsewhere).

    Perhaps the writer of this sign was aiming for a full form following this pretend rule, and knowing 'his' would not do when the Secretary of State may be a woman, went for 'its'. So the intention was 'The Secretary of State's agents…'.

  29. David J. Littleboy said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

    What Jim Manheim said!

    But Dennis Baron said: "The problem is that the sign suggests you could die by parking here, and it will be your own damn fault, not theirs."

    Well, yes. In the US, this would be normal. We've all got guns and use them at random times. But it is rather odd in the UK.

  30. Bloix said,

    May 17, 2015 @ 11:30 pm

    Mollymooly is clearly correct. This is a boilerplate legal notice that has been adapted to a specific site by a person whose first language is not English.

    Why the need for the notice? Because the relationship between a parker and a lot owner can be ambiguous. Is the parker turning over his/her car for safekeeping? In law this would be a bailment. Valet parking generally establishes a bailment relationship.

    Or is the lot owner simply making a space available to you for your use? In law this is a license. If your car is damaged or stolen, or another driver runs you over, that's your problem, unless you can prove that the lot owner did something to cause the loss.

    This sign is putting all parkers on notice that what they have is a license to park, not a bailment.

    But why is the English so bad? Clearly "Secretary of State" has been subbed in for some other noun in the model that's being used.

    As for the missing commas – this is a holdover from the archaic style of English legal drafting, which has been a source of puzzlement on this blog before:
    and commenting on that post:

    But why the missing "to any person," and why the peculiar italics?

  31. chris y said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 9:05 am

    As a Brit who has endured the present government for the past five years, I feel that #3 is unquestionably correct. Alternatively the Secretary of State may very well be a creature from the dungeon dimensions with neither sex nor gender.

  32. James Wimberley said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 5:53 pm

    The notice was clearly drafted by the same jobsworths who put up notices titled "Important Notice". It is usually safe to ignore these. A genuinely important notice, such as "Danger: mines!" does not need to puff out its chest.

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