“When People Commit Errors of ‘Internal Structure of Logic or Order'”

A commenter on the “Internal Structure of Logic or Order” thread writes,

Education is fundamentally elitist, and it ought to be. When people commit errors of “internal structure of logic or order” it’s perfectly okay for those who know better to define those as mistakes, and, within the bounds of social propriety, correct them. Social propriety ought, at a minimum, extend to endorsing adults helping children and teachers helping students. Those helped are empowered to think more clearly as a result. Why anyone would criticize that is mysterious to me.

The notion of “rival structures” legitimizing error is one that ought to be resisted. For example, it is commonplace for observers of criminal verdicts to say the defendant has been “found innocent.” That rival structure was popularized by publishers, who noted a liability risk in writing “not guilty.” An editing error which omitted the “not” could lead to a libel suit. Generations of journalism students were trained to use “found innocent” instead, and as a result the rival structure has taken over and confused millions. That’s a real loss, and there is no reason to approve of it just because it’s what most people do.

I actually agree that teachers ought to teach their students more effective usage. But, as I argued here, we teachers ought to do this without ourselves making errors — including by erroneously faulting something as grammatically or linguistically “incorrect” when the objection is something else.

Let’s consider “found innocent” and “found not guilty.” Recall that one well-established definition of “innocent” is “not guilty.” (See the OED, “Free from specific wrong or guilt; that has not committed the particular offence charged or in question; not deserving of the punishment or suffering inflicted; not guilty, guiltless, unoffending.”)

Of course, the phrase “found innocent,” if taken literally, may inaccurately convey the message that the jury actually concluded that the person didn’t commit the crime. But “found not guilty,” if taken literally, may inaccurately convey the same message that the jury actually concluded that the person was not guilty.

I take it the commenter’s objection is that the jury actually found only that the prosecution hadn’t proven guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This means the jury might have thought the defendant probably was guilty, but just thought the probability hadn’t been shown to be high enough to justify a conviction. (Obligatory citation to the Scotch verdict, which our system doesn’t provide for.) But a literal interpretation of “found not guilty” doesn’t convey that — literally, “found not guilty” means something like “found not to be guilty,” not “not found to be guilty.”

So what we have is a legal locution — a verdict of “not guilty” — that is potentially confusing, if understood literally. Replacing “found not guilty” with “found innocent” might slightly exacerbate that confusion, but I doubt it.

The question is: What should a writer do to minimize this risk of confusion? One possibility is avoiding “found innocent” for “found not guilty,” but I doubt this will do much to diminish the risk of confusion, since (again) “found not guilty” could be misunderstood as “the jury decided the person actually wasn’t guilty,” which is to say didn’t commit the crime. Another possibility is to say “acquitted,” though there’s the danger that some readers might not as quickly grasp that.

Another possibility is to say “was not found to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” but in many situations the benefit of extra precision might be outweighed by the cost of extra length and grammatical complexity. (In other situations, though, the extra precision and the extra stress on the possibility of substantial but not overwhelming evidence of guilt might justify using this longer phrase.) Another possibility is to say “not found guilty,” which may in the abstract be more logically correct (the jury did not find him guilty, which isn’t the same thing as literally finding him not guilty), but which is highly unidiomatic, and may be confusing because it leaves open the possibility of other outcomes — no trial was held, the case was dismissed before a finding, the jury hung, and so on.

But, in any case, choosing “found not guilty” instead of “found innocent” is not much of a matter of following the language’s “internal structure of logic or order,” or avoiding linguistic error. Both phrases are logically very similar, if read literally. It’s true that “found not guilty” is just quoting the legal verdict (though without quotation marks), and “found innocent” is paraphrasing it, but I don’t think there’s an internal structure of logic or order that bars such a paraphrase, if I’m right that “found innocent” is likely to actually be perceived much the same way as “found not guilty.”

The question is which message most effectively conveys a complicated concept to actual readers or listeners, in light of the likely perceptions created in their minds by those messages (which in turn are shaped by actual usage).

So if you want to tell students that “found not guilty” is less likely than “found innocent” to erroneously make readers think that the defendant was actually found not to be guilty, that’s fine. I’m not sure how accurate you’d be in this estimation, but perhaps you might argue that the phrase “found not guilty” has an idiomatic meaning in readers’ minds that “found innocent” does not possess. But if you tell them that “found innocent” somehow violates internal structures of logic or order that “found not guilty” preserves, I don’t see the foundation for such a statement.

As to “The notion of ‘rival structures’ legitimizing error is one that ought to be resisted,” my point is that you can’t tell that something is an error simply by pointing to one “internal structure of logic or order” that makes it an error. Saying “I was” isn’t an error just because it violates the observed regularity that “I” generally takes a form that is used with plural nouns rather than singular nouns (e.g., “I eat” rather than “I eats”). Rather, it is correct because there is an exception to the structure, an exception that is evident from usage — and it is usage that legitimizes what (if the usage had been contrary) would have been error.

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