Language Clarity Above All


Over the last eighteen months, we’ve made an on-going effort to highlight various cases of accidental shootings – sometimes leading to grave injuries, other times to minor ones, but usually illustrating the straightforward fact that guns are dangerous and people often do stupid things with them. Like showing them off to friends while they’re loaded, or showing them off when the gun is loaded and the gun-shower is also loaded, or leaving them unsecured where 3 year olds can find them and blow their heads off. But frequently, and increasingly of late, we get emails from readers criticizing our decision to call these shootings ‘accidents’ because that is not, in their view, what they are.

But, of course, that is exactly what they are. Of course, shooters may have fooled authorities into believing an intentional homicide was unintentional. But that’s a different issue.

Here’s an example I just received from TPM Reader DD, in reference to this article about a pregnant Florida woman shot dead by a friend who was showing her some of his new guns …

Please, I am tired of this misrepresentation. She was not accidentally shot in the head. She was shot in the head by a grossly negligent gun owner. These are not accidents.

I am always a little mystified by these emails because at one level they seem to show a simple lack of understanding of what the word ‘accident’ means. The primary meaning of ‘accident’ is an unfortunate and usually unexpected event that happens without anyone intending it. Most of us know this. So I assume there’s no need to be belabor the point. Calling something an ‘accident’ doesn’t mean it is blameless or doesn’t involve negligence. In fact, most accidental shootings almost by definition involve some level of negligence, whether or not authorities decide it rises to the level of criminal culpability. Indeed, calling something “grossly negligent” basically requires an ‘accident’ since a person cannot be negligent about something if the outcome is one they intended.

All of this kind of goes without saying. But what interests me about these emails is the pervasive need, which we are probably all liable to, to distort language as a signal or measure of moral outrage. In other cases, we do this to stifle discussion or even thought – such as when we recoil from calling terrorists “brave”. Terrorists are often very brave, even when they’re evil. You can be both. There’s no necessary contradiction but for the fact that we think they’re evil so we don’t want to credit them for what we usually see as a virtue.

Almost all the major errors or mistakes or great instances of public bamboozlement I recall over the last twenty-five-odd years involved major distortions of language or the aggressive policing of language to prevent certain ideas or possibilities from being discussed or considered. The lead up to the Iraq War comes to mind. But it’s only one example and possibly only extreme in terms of the consequences involved.

As it happens, when I was in a late stage of editing this post I got a follow up from DD in reply to my reply to her. She said she had written hurriedly and her real point was that …

I believe if we change the perception of the act so that it is not immediately assumed it is an accident and people believe they may be charged most people will think twice when they have a gun in their possession.

The logic behind distorting the language was different and perhaps more considered than I realized. But all the above applies, indeed the amount of conscious thought that went into it seems to make it worse.

I hesitate to reference Orwell’s essay on language since in addition to being an amazingly important and educative essay it’s been almost done to death by endless recommending and name-checking. But language really is our only vehicle for thought and our ability to communicate with other humans. So its clarity, its ability to signify meaning with precision, to mean one thing and not the other, is critical to the most important things in our lives. Orwell’s big insight was that clarity of language is not only an aesthetic issue but a moral one as well, frequently a political one too – an insight particularly appealing to writers of course, but valid nonetheless.

Simply put, we shouldn’t do it – even when we imagine it may force an outcome we believe is a good one.

PostScript: I have to confess to being surprised at how many people have written in saying, in essence, that DD is right. The arguments are very consistent: calling something an accident either means or implies that no negligence was involved – something which I believe is categorically false as a matter of word meaning – or saying that this isn’t the technically correct term for unintentionally firing a weapon under these circumstances. In part because I wanted to share but also because my fingers are getting tired out by writing a similar response to so many different emails, I thought I’d share my reply to TPM Reader BR

People may think that calling something an ‘accident’ means no one is responsible. But if they do, that just means they don’t know the meaning of the word. A number of bad decisions or in some cases criminally negligent decisions go into most accidents. That doesn’t make them not accidents – accident means that the outcome is not what the person intended.

Accident does not mean blameless. It doesn’t contradict negligence. It’s simply about intention. If you read the description of how this shooting happened I’m sure you agree and I think anyone would realize that a high degree of negligence was involved, from showing off the weapon while it was loaded and on down from there.

The key point is this: journalistic writing is about clarity and accurate description. Headline writing especially is about providing the most relevant information in as few words as possible. You might write the headline as “Negligent discharge of firearm leads to pregnant woman’s death,” but this is jargon or technical language from firearms safety that most people aren’t even familiar with. So it is at best confusing. The most important piece of information is that a woman was killed with a gun by someone who wasn’t trying to kill her. From there the rest of the story gives the details of exactly how this came about.

You’re operating on the assumption that calling this an accident means it happened as a kind of random occurrence that no one is responsible for and that calling it this ignores all the basic rules and guidelines that responsible gun owners and people who use them in their line of work follow to limit the dangers inherent in firearms. But it doesn’t. It is simply the most descriptive way to convey to the reader the essence of what happened. It’s not a story about someone who tried to kill someone; it’s a story about someone who killed someone accidentally/unintentionally through some mix of recklessness, negligence, carelessness or stupidity. Using the jargon of firearms safety does not make that more clear.