Impunity

« previous post | next post »

Adam Kilgore and Juan Forero, "Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos kidnapped in Venezuela", Washington Post 11/9/20111:

Wilson Ramos, one of the Washington Nationals' most promising young baseball players, was kidnapped at gunpoint Wednesday night from his family's home in Venezuela, leaving the team in a state of shock and raising questions about the safety of playing in a country ravaged in recent years by kidnappings and street crime. […]

In a crime and safety report this year, the U.S. Department of State described kidnappings in Venezuela as "a growing industry." In 2009, according to an estimate in the crime and safety report, "there was an alarming 9.2 incidents of kidnapping per 100,000 inhabitants in Venezuela." […]

Many of the kidnappings that take place in the country are so-called "express" kidnappings, in which armed men drive a victim around and take money from him before releasing him. The Department of State crime and safety report stated that "groups that specialize in these types of crimes operate with impunity or fear of incarceration." [emphasis added]

My first thought was that the "impunity or fear" part must have been an error introduced by careless editing at the Post, since an earlier paragraph in the same story has a couple of typos so striking that even I noticed them:

Kidnappings have become a scourge in Venezuela. Crime in general is a major concern for Venezuelans, who complain that under President Hugo Chavez's government homicides and drug trafficking have flourished. Cocaine trafficking from Colombia through Venezuela is rife, Obama administratoin [sic] officials say, and big cities like cCaracas [sic] have become among the most violent in Latin America.

But in fact, the Post's quotation from the OSAC bulletin is exact. Overseas Security Advisory Council, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State, "Venezuela 2011 Crime and Safety Report", 7/17/2011:

Kidnappings, whether traditional, express or virtual, are a growing industry in Venezuela.  Because groups that specialize in these types of crimes operate with impunity or fear of incarceration, more entrepreneurial criminals hit the streets.  In 2009 reported kidnappings more than doubled from the previous year.  Statisticians and police have openly stated that only 30-40% of all kidnappings get reported to the police.  If the experts are right, for the year 2009 there was an alarming 9.2 incidents of kidnapping per 100,000 inhabitants in Venezuela.

So apparently the editing error was at the State Department, and the Post just cut and pasted unwisely.

But a bit more poking around suggests that something more might be going on here. Look at this political comment from 12/1/2007 (screenshot):

Exactly RJ, If you're a liberal Democrat you can say anything….about anyone with impunity or fear of retribution.

Or this, from the other end of the political spectrum:

Corporate person-hood has its key to it's entire purpose here: it provides for the humans in control of the corporations to be protected from wrongdoing should their proxies ever be found guilty of illegalities. Therefore, the corporations have the power to control the flow of money in their direction much more than individual citizens, without impunity or fear of being accused of unconstitutional acts. Damn, I want one…

Or this, from a gamer forum:

you can attack without impunity or fear of intercept. i find this a massive bonus. i can attack who i want in my point range knowing that noone can retalliate.

Another political rant-fragment:

Congress' behavior had designated Israel as the only foreign country with carte blanche to kill Americans with impunity or fear of reprisal.

And this fine specimen of the genre:

So now Eric Holder wants the CIA Operatives who conducted the Congressionally approved (I'm looking at you Nancy Pelosi, although I try real hard not to) interrogation methods on these terrorists, investigated and most likely prosecuted for them. Little terrorists are going to get posters of Eric Holder to put on their bedroom walls and at night their Mommy and Daddy terrorists will sing his praises and thank Allah for delivering such a dunce on America. They will tell little Muhammed (fine or Jimmy if you prefer not to profile) how "Eric Holder is making America's CIA weaker by making sure they can't do that silly waterboarding thing anymore and scaring the CIA into second-guessing itself now and into the forseeable future. Which won't be long because now that we can operate with impunity or fear of serious reprisal, it's only a matter of time before we get enough of you and your brothers over there with bombs to bring down the Great White Satan. Pray that Eric Holder is successful in his work Muhammed (Jimmy), his success paves the way for ours."

It looks to me like some people have concluded that "with impunity or fear of X" is a fancy way to say "without fear of X". And some others have assigned this same meaning to "without impunity or fear of X" –because why not?

Dick Margulis, who drew my attention to this phrase in the stories about Wilson Ramos's kidnapping, called it a "strange misnegation". And it does apparently have something to do with getting confused about negation — but I can't think of any simple way to fix these just by adding or subtracting a negative.

You could put the "… or fear of X" part inside the meaning of the word impunity:

impunity = freedom from punishment
impunity or fear of incarceration = freedom from [punishment or fear of incarceration]

But this is well outside the norms of English semantic interpretation, and it's still not really the intended meaning anyhow.



19 Comments

  1. Bernhard said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    Isn't the normal negation in English 'no'? Id esset:

    impunity = no punishment
    impunity or fear of incarceration = no [punishment or fear of incarceration]

    which, incidentally, gives the intended semantics.

    [(myl) This is a plausible derivation, better than my attempt. It also makes sense of the fact that the idiomatic collocation is "without fear of X", not "with fear of X".

    But would you expect to see corresponding things like "impossible or reasonable", or "illegal or ethical", etc.?]

  2. Necandum said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 7:36 am

    I think that the main problem is that the two disjuncts are of opposite polarity and its clunky sticking in a negation, so people just leave it out.
    To me, at least, it makes sense to say "with impunity or without fear of retribution". That sounds much nicer with an 'and' though, so if you really want to keep it a disjunction and have it sound superficially decent, dropping the 'without' seems the easiest way to do it.

  3. Michael said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 7:43 am

    This appears to me a case of carelessness or "lazy speech". Indeed, it is a bit awkward to say "with impunity and without fear of…", so the speaker abbreviates.

  4. James said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 7:46 am

    My thought was essentially the same as Bernhard's. I'd add that

    operate with impunity or fear of incarceration

    has the rhythm of

    operate without punishment or fear of incarceration,

    which might make it easier for a speaker to miss the problem with the former.

  5. Simon Wright said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 7:48 am

    @Bernhard: I don't think you can read this as im[punity or fear of incarceration]; punity isn't even a word, and even if it were the negation wouldn't transfer: "I couldn't see X because it was invisible or in plain sight".

  6. Jon Weinberg said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 8:22 am

    Not everyone gets the meaning of "impunity" correct, especially in a negation context — the very first page of ghits for "without impunity" includes the phrase "New law says Canadians can create fake news stories without impunity", intending the meaning "with impunity". Possibly people who simply misunderstood the meaning of "impunity" began by saying "without impunity or fear of punishment", and that in turn morphed into "with impunity or fear of punishment" under the influence of the actual meaning of "impunity".

  7. Hugo said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    At first I just couldn't understand the phrase. At all. I'm not a native English speaker, but still, I'm not a beginner and I don't recall having problems understanding news reports… (except maybe some weird crash blossoms)

    I think Jon Weinberg's explanation as to how that crooked phrasing came to life must be close to reality. It makes sense to me at least. "With impunity or fear of X" doesn't, though.

  8. Leigh said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    It seems to me that the main problem is just a desire to say too much. The speaker wants to say both things ("with impunity" and "without fear of [whatever]"), whereas only one is needed. Someone can do something "with impunity." Voilà. Since "with impunity" means "without punishment" of any kind, it certainly implies "without reprisal," "without imprisonment," "without censure," or whatever else one might fear as a result of one's actions. The whole thing is kind of like something I heard a spokesman say yesterday on the radio (about the Penn State thing): "We want to take care of this swiftly and…uh…quickly."

  9. RP said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 9:51 am

    I'm not sure I see any value in having the second half of the phrase there at all. If you say "with impunity and without fear of incarceration", what is added by "and without fear of incarceration" that isn't already implied? I suppose in principle you can have impunity without knowing you have it, and thus you might be afraid of being incarcerated despite the lack of risk, but normally the assumption would very much be that the bad guys are aware of their impunity. Is the second half just added for the benefit of people who aren't sure what impunity is?

  10. RP said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    Leigh, I hadn't seen your comment yet when I posted mine – I hope you don't mind that I repeated your point (more or less).

  11. Alacritas said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    This seems to be in a class of its own, as opposed to being a misnegation, seeing as most misnegations slip past my radar whereas this just jumps out at me as completely ridiculous and nonsensical. Well not nonsensical, since I understood the intended meaning after some reflection…but still, the strangeness of this construction hit me like a Mac truck!

    For most misnegations, I really have to think about it (especially the more convoluted ones) to get why it's "wrong"; not the case here.

    In any case I quite like Jon Weinberg's explanation above of how this phenomenon came to be. The idea of people abbreviating "with impunity and without fear of […]" to "with impunity OR fear of […]" doesn't seem quite as plausible as Mr. Weinberg's theory.

  12. Skullturf said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    I like to think that I'm a reasonably well-read person interested in language trivia, but I had honestly never "parsed" the word "impunity" as "im" + "punity" before reading this post.

  13. F said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 11:48 am

    To elaborate on Bernhard's idea, which I intuitively agree with — to me 'impunity' sounds inherently negative, of course not because it's im-punity, but because the concept is negative: "freedom from punishment." Therefore the phrase doesn't immediately strike me as weird. I'm not a linguist, but it's like there's a semantic marker that sits inside the word but is getting spread outside it.

    But it sounds like not everyone has internalized the phrase 'with impunity' in the same way — for some people there's a negative marker and for some there isn't.

    As to why this is different from 'illegal', 'impossible', etc. — maybe because 'with impunity' gets processed as a single semantic unit, but also as a PP which it's reasonable to build onto.

    Is there some sort of theory of semantic primitives that can account for this (loosely speaking) observation?

  14. KevinM said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    [[As to why this is different from 'illegal', 'impossible', etc. — maybe because 'with impunity' gets processed as a single semantic unit]]

    "Two words: Im – possible." In legend, Samuel Goldwyn, but probably apocryphal. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/12/samuel-goldwyn%E2%80%99s-impossible-quote/
    Anyway, the point is that it wouldn't be very funny if anybody thought of the "im" as detachable.

  15. Mark F. said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    Grammatically, there's no mystery about "without impunity or fear of being accused of unconstitutional acts". I suspect this person thinks "without impunity" means the same thing as "without compunction", since the distinction is hard to infer from the way people use the word. In fact it may be drifting in that direction. In any case, that interpretation would explain why the speaker thought the sentence wasn't redundant.

    For people who use the "with impunity or" construction, there are probably some editing errors where a "without" was changed to "with", and in other cases I agree with the "negative nimbus" theory, which I think amounts to the "with im [punity or fear of punishment]" interpretation, but without assuming conscious awareness of the morphology.

  16. GeorgeW said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    FWIW, I think Simon Wright's analysis and Jon Weinberg's proposal make the most sense. I don't think im-[X or Y] would be the explanation.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 10, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    Googling reveals that hundreds of instances of "without punity" are Out There. The few I looked at in context generally seemed "correct" in that the plausible intended meaning seemed roughly synonymous with "with impunity" and the polarity hadn't gotten inadvertently reversed. The only parallel instance with "or" I saw was "Please do not build intimidation in the face of my elders and allow me to pass freely without punity or prosecution." This seems comprehensible. Certainly in a weird ESLish register, but the parallel construction hasn't messed up the polarity.

  18. Bob K. said,

    November 12, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    How about "with impunity and no fear of incarceration"?

  19. Bernhard said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    @GeorgeW and @Simon Wright: I think the whole point was that the negation somehow 'jumps out' of the word and associates with 'with'. Evidently, the more elegant way of phrasing is to use 'without' to describe the effect, as James may have suggested, and F did, too.

    Maybe Jon is right, I cannot decide this. It just seems to me that for 'difficult' constructs, such coordination errors seem to occur sometimes. For example, in German it is relatively easy to find examples where a genitive is continued by a dative in phrases like 'in the name of' (e.g. googling for "im namen des * und den" gets many hits, also from 'respectable' sources). This does not make sense unless one assumes that writers internally 'translate' a genitive phrase to a paraphrase with 'von'+dative (of which it may be the 'elevated-style version' in this case). Then again, the analysis would be that the (reconstructed) 'von' scopes out of the domain of the lexical item (the genitive determiner): 'im Namen [[des-gen-m/n-sg X] and [der-dat-pl Y]]' ('correct') → 'im Namen von [[dem-dat-m/n-sg X] und [den-dat-pl Y]' → 'im Namen {des-gen-[m/n-sg X] und [den-dat-pl Y]}' (sorry, bad visualisation).

    So I would not expect 'impossible or reasonable', because it (a) contains too simple words and (b) is not embedded in a bigger phrase. (Being German, I could well live with 'unjust and -reasonable', though, at least in writing, but that's a totally different example.)

RSS feed for comments on this post