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Linguistic Ambiguity and Ignorant Journalists

September 2nd, 2009

alecmce

Even BBC Radio 4 journalists are unable to recognise the distinction between the following sentences:

  • I do not want Megrahi to die in prison;
  • I want Megrahi not to die in prison.

There ought to be a clear distinction between the intention of the speaker in the two cases: the first does not necessarily convey any intention, while the second takes a clear intentional stance.

On BBC Radio 4 this morning, a five minute interview went frustratingly round in circles because neither the Foreign Secretary nor the interviewer could satisfactorily explain this distinction.

We often use the first form of the sentence when we mean the second, and this linguistic ambiguity was siezed upon in a piece of journalistic opportunisim. Bill Rammel was asked a question about whether the UK government ‘wanted Megrahi to die in prison’. He responded that they did not. The question asked about whether an intention existed; he replied that it did not. He was not asked, nor responded to whether there was the converse intention; he was not asked “Does the UK government want Megrahi to be released from prison before he dies?”, but it is now widely reported that he confirmed exactly that.

Increasingly, it seems that journalists exploit these linguistic ambiguities in order to create a story. No wonder politicians (of every persuasion – I am ambivalent with respect to the different parties) are so careful when asked ‘clear yes and no questions’ and sometimes simply repeat a well-rehearsed phrase. When they are misrepresented so wholly as in this case, can you really blame them?

When they occur, these stories are good opportunities to highlight the ambiguity of language and the care with which language needs to be used to sixth-form philosophy students. It is perhaps the most important practical application of learning philosophy that its students can be forewarned against the pitfalls of such exploitative misrepresentation.

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