Political shenanigans with word counts

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How to count words is sometimes an issue for people like writers and translators, but it is rarely if ever a political issue. It is now, in British Columbia.

First, a little background. Until recently, in BC we had two sales taxes, the provincial one, the PST, and the federal one, the GST. The sets of goods to which the two taxes applied were not exactly the same. It was proposed to create a Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), in which there would be a single tax, the proceeds of which would be shared by the provincial and federal governments. In addition to simplifying tax calculation and accounting, this changes a cascading tax to a value added tax, which economists generally consider preferable. However, the HST is seen by many people as an effective tax increase and is very unpopular in BC, with polls showing as much as 82% opposition. Before the last provincial election, the BC Liberal party promised not to implement the HST, but once back in power, they did. In addition to the dislike for the HST itself, many voters are angry at the Liberals for lying. The result has been a referendum to be held next year and the targetting of prominent Liberal Members of the Legislative Assembly for recall.

The first recall petition, against Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Ida Chong, was recently presented to Elections BC, only to be rejected on the grounds that it exceeded the 200 word limit established by statute. As the recall proponents counted, the text was within the word limit. The problem was that, according to Elections BC, MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) and HST are to be counted as five words and three words respectively, not as one each.

This is indeed the standard for counting words now prescribed by Elections BC, but it was only posted after the petition was rejected. The question is, then, whether the rules followed by Elections BC were reasonable and to be expected or whether they were created in order to sabotage the recall effort, as recall proponents allege.

I think that the critics are right. For most purposes word counts are based on the division of text into orthographic words, not on how it would be read aloud (the stated basis for the post hoc rules). Moreover, when text is read aloud, although numerals are usually translated into the words for which they stand (that is, 23 is read as "twenty-three", which might be treated as two words rather than one), abbreviations, especially very familiar ones like HST and MLA, are not generally expanded (that is, MLA is read as "em-ell-eh", not as "Member of the Legislative Assembly"). The method used by the recall proponents was what one would expect, the rules applied an ad hoc invention designed to sabotage the petition.

The recall has not been cut off at the knees: the proponents have submitted a new petition only 183 words long according to the new Elections BC rules. The effect has been a delay in getting the process started and a good bit of extra work since the 150 canvassers for the proponents all had to submit new applications.

[Lest someone point out that for some purposes, e.g. tests of typing speed and estimation of the space required for printing, word count is based on character counts, e.g. words = characters/6, Elections BC does not claim to have used such a method, and in any case, in such a method, HST and MLA are clearly single words. If the purpose of the word limit was to limit the space needed on a ballot, a character-based method would be more appropriate.]


  1. blahedo said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 6:07 am

    A tangentially relevant xkcd: #545.

    Would it be worth appealing the decision, or would it be not worth it given the updated petition?

  2. Graeme said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 7:47 am

    Seems a reasonable precedent. Either approach is fine if predictability of count were the only aim. But if the ultimate point is comprehensibility then surely discouraging excessive and even obscure abbreviations is sensible.

  3. marie-lucie said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    In Canada, those abbreviations (MLA, GST, etc) are anything but obscure.

  4. Army1987 said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    @Blahedo: Actually, such an article would get deleted per [[WP:NOTCRYSTALBALL]]…

  5. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    Since Linguistics itself does not have a universal, bullet-proof definition of word, it would be reasonable to cut the commission a little slack in their effort to establish a meaningful definition. Nevertheless, manipulating the definition or its accessibility is what I would call "dirty pool." I support appealing the decision…but to whom?

  6. Leonardo Boiko said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    @Army: I don’t think so. Not a crystal ball only forbids speculation about future events. The event described in xkcd would not be a future event, it would be a regular past event. What is speculation is what the guy will do a week later—that, yes, wikipedia shouldn’t cover; but the announcement itself (assuming it’s notable) is proper wiki material.

  7. Keith Trnka said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    I wonder what they'd do if the petition included recursive acronyms like GNU? Only expand it once?

    Or simpler cases like SAX (Simple API for XML).

  8. A.D. Pask-Hughes said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

    Because the comments section on the last post (The diplomat, the bishop, the bomber, and the fruit bat) was closed, for obvious reasons, I've had to post this here.

    That is quite easily my favourite blog post of the year so far. Is there an award for this? (I'm sure there is) If so, that one ought to win.

    Which is not to say that I'm not interested in this post. Although I'm not.

  9. Mr Punch said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

    Graeme is (nevertheless) right – the purpose of informing voters is undermined by obscure acronyms, even marginally obscure ones, and therefore acronyms should be allowed only if there is an explicit list or standard of comprehensibility. Perhaps there should be such a list or standard; but in its absence, a ban should be the presumption.

  10. Faith said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 12:43 am

    I too live in British Columbia and I would say "MLA" is much more readily understood than Member of the Legislative Assembly. I think many British Columbians would have a hard time remembering what the A stands for, given that we refer to the provincial body as the legislature, not the Legislative Assembly, when speaking normally. As for HST–this appears on every menu, invoice and receipt, in advertisements, etc. Anybody who doesn't know what it is will not be assisted by the words "Harmonized Sales Tax," which is itself not a exactly transparent term.

    Having said that, I'm actually not a big anti-HSTer–although it is notable how many more things they managed to tax by bringing it in. The current provincial government has done a lot more to irritate me in other ways. But I do think this is dirty pool.

  11. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    Mr Punch: Graeme is (nevertheless) right – the purpose of informing voters is undermined by obscure acronyms, even marginally obscure ones,

    Except that in British Columbia right now, more people will recognize HST</I? than <i?Harmonized sales tax.

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