Semantic gymnastics

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Steve Butcher and Maris Beck, "Journalists appeal in bid to protect sources", The Age 2/5/2013:

The grounds of appeal announced on Monday state Justice Sifris erred in not finding Mr Goldberg was wrong in failing to set aside the summonses.

Five negatives. Degree of difficulty: E. Judges' score: 9.6.

I believe that this one comes out right, as a bit more of the context helps to verify:

Mr Goldberg had earlier ruled subpoenas compelling the journalists to give evidence in a bribery case had a legitimate forensic purpose.

The journalists then sought a review of that decision to Justice Michael Sifris in the Supreme Court who ruled the magistrate had "acted properly and within jurisdiction".

The grounds of appeal announced on Monday state Justice Sifris erred in not finding Mr Goldberg was wrong in failing to set aside the summonses.

Overall, an impressive performance.

[Tip of the hat to Andrew Gaylard]


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

    That is impressive. Since this story is from the same newspaper whose employees are the journalists involved in the litigation, I expect they got the language straight from the paper's lawyers and may have resisted the temptation to tamper with it. I might have paraphrased it into something possibly easier to parse along the lines of "erred in not vacating the magistrate's decision sustaining the validity of the summonses," but I am not an Australian lawyer and it is certainly possible that such a paraphrase would lose some subtle distinction of great importance in Victorian appellate practice. The "to" in "sought a review of that decision to Justice Michael Sifris" sounds Just Plain Wrong to me (I would go with "by" or use a different verb), but maybe that's an Australianism or something.

  2. James said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    Oddly, I (think I) had no trouble understanding this one.

    Of course, it may be that I would have picked up the same meaning even if the sentence left out one of the negatives.

    [(myl) Yes, it's characteristic of great athletes (semantic and otherwise) that they make it look easy…]

  3. Hening Makholm said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    I would have liked a "that" after "had earlier ruled". As it is, I spent quite some effort on wondering whether legal jargon permits subpoenas to be "ruled" rather than "issued".

    [(myl) I agree. That little wobble on the take-off is why I gave it a 9.6 rather than a higher score.]

  4. David Morris said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    1st paragraph: I would definitely prefer "that".
    2nd paragraph: "Sought a review … to …" is certainly not standard Australian English; it would definitely be "by". It just may be a legal term, but I doubt it. I'm not a lawyer, but I spent six and a bit years editing law reports for publication by one of Australia's leading legal publishers. I guess that the writer cut and pasted parts of two sentences or rearranged one sentence, eg "The journalists applied to Mr Justice Sifris, seeking a review …".

  5. KathrynM said,

    February 6, 2013 @ 11:23 am

    I'm still struggling with "grounds of appeal announced on Monday State Justice," which seems to say that an announcement about State Justice Sifris was made on Monday by the grounds of appeal. Who the heck is "the grounds of appeal," and what is his/her/its function?

  6. Faldone said,

    February 6, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    The grounds of appeal (that were) announced on Monday state* (that) Justice Sifris ..

    *Note: Lower case s in state.

  7. Ed Latham said,

    February 6, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    Five is hugely impressive. I've previously never read anything higher than a three (Baseball GM Dallas Green, in response to a question years ago: 'I was never not confident that it wouldn't.')

  8. KathrynM said,

    February 6, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

    Ah, thank you, Faldone. Yes, I'd overlooked the small "s." It's still not how I would describe the occurrence ("the grounds of appeal are" or "It was announced Monday that the basis for the appeal is") but at least now I can follow it far enough to get to all the lovely negatives.

  9. David Morris said,

    February 6, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

    There are a number of ways to refer to Australian judges, depending on the level of formality and the amount of shared knowledge, but they are never called "State Justice Michael Sifris", or (in this case) "Victorian Justice Michael Sifris". The general, formal formulae are something like "Victorian Supreme Court Justice Michael Sifris", or "Mr Justice Michael Sifris, a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria". In a Melbourne newspaper, the name of the state is taken for granted and the name of the court has been established by "the state's highest court".

  10. Dave K said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 7:03 am

    ""Sought a review of that decision to…" doesn't sound like usual American English either. "Sought an appeal to" is however and my guess is that someone changed the noun and neglected to change the preposition.

  11. Sam Fields said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    Can someone help me out here? I only see four negatives. I guess it's "set aside"?

    "The grounds of appeal announced on Monday state Justice Sifris erred in not finding Mr Goldberg was wrong in failing to set aside the summonses."

  12. The Empowered Paralegal » Blog Archive » I’m not through talking about writing said,

    February 16, 2013 @ 9:40 pm

    […] brisk debate sprung up as to whether the sentence contained five negatives or only four, but all the experts did agree […]

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