Language is a funny old thing: it can be beautiful yet brutal; trivial yet pivotal. At the very least, it’s always a product of the author’s thoughts: a symptom of an attitude; a barometer of a mindset. But—more than that—whether subtle or strident, malign or mendacious, it remains our main tool of influence. What you say, what you write, is important.
But sometimes, it’s a car crash.
Let’s take a look at it, pull it apart, see if it needs fixing, and then put it back together.
The facts of the matter
There are two key facts that need to be borne in mind.
The first is that inanimate objects do not generate actions. People do things; vehicles merely respond; street furniture merely exists.
The second is that reporters are, quite rightly, not free to imply legal blame. Only the legal process can do that, and a reporter is obliged not to prejudice the case. (I’m not a reporter, but I can direct you to a thoughtful piece on this matter written by one.)
In some cases, it is easy to phrase things in a way that recognises both of those points. For others, it can be less straightforward.
However, reporters often—understandably, perhaps—overlook the former in favour of the latter where there is no conflict.
The driverless vehicle
Often, reporting adopts the “driverless vehicle” style. Consider this report from the Evening Standard (which has been significantly changed since I wrote this); I’ve highlighted some phrases below and then replaced them in the version on the right (click for a larger image).
The key changes are these:
- If any racing was being done, it was the driver of the vehicle racing; the vehicle was being raced.
- The racing wasn’t against another vehicle; it was against another driver.
- The vehicle didn’t fail to stop; the driver failed to stop the vehicle.
(Of course, in extremely rare cases vehicles can fail to stop, if the brake is applied and they fail to work; but such an event is usually followed by a second collision in which the vehicle does succeed in stopping, when it hits some other inanimate object. No mention of that here.)
I don’t think any of these changes go beyond simple reporting of the facts, and so they don’t push the report into potential lawsuit territory.
It’s not only journalists who adopt the driverless vehicle style: the police do it too. And since journalists usually work directly from police reports, they’re guided pretty strongly by the phrasing in those.
For example, googling for the phrase “failed to stop” on police sites brings back a first page which (ignoring FAQs and guidance) contains five reports about drivers that failed to stop and eleven reports about vehicles that failed to stop (plus one which uses both styles). It’s a representative sample: the majority—including the report for the incident covered in the Standard—give agency to the vehicle.
Is implying blame acceptable?
Sometimes things go to a bizarre extreme. Consider this report from the Coventry Telegraph:
A cyclist is ‘seriously ill’ in hospital this Sunday after the bike he was riding crashed with a van in Coventry. The man was riding the push-bike on the A45 Birmingham Road when he collided with a van outside the Windmill Pub in Allesley.
There’s stark confusion as to whether the rider or the bike was the active protagonist, but it seems fairly clear here that the cyclist rode into the van, doesn’t it?
The report continues,
Crew commander Rob Smith, of Canley station, said…“We don’t know the cause but he was struck by the van from behind.”
So, not the incident that the earlier phrases suggested, then. It seems the collision occurred as a result of the van travelling faster than the bicycle and hitting it from behind.
It seems disingenuous, to put it mildly, to say of the cyclist that “he collided with the van”.
A cynic might be of the opinion that any legal case arising from this is likely to be conducted in such a way that prejudicing the driver would be problematic but prejudicing the cyclist wouldn’t, so it’s far easier to get away with implying blame in this way than it is the other. But let’s set cynicism aside for now.
An I-Spy guide to poor phrasing
In lieu of a style guide, let’s take a look at some common phrases and see how they could be improved.
“The vehicle failed to stop.”
A straightforward misrepresentation unless an input was applied and mechanical failure occurred. Clearly it is reasonable to say that “the driver failed to stop.”
“The vehicle lost control.”
Again, a clear misrepresentation: the vehicle is controlled by its driver, and thus “the driver lost control [of the vehicle].”
“X collided with Y”
The argument in favour of this phrase is that it’s supposedly order-independent, that saying “X collided with Y” is no different to saying “Y collided with X”.
You can test this by using words like “car” and “house”: it’s clearly absurd to say “a house collided with a car” (though, depressingly, I have once seen this). It’s obvious that “X collided with Y” implies more about X than it does about Y.
The problem can be mitigated by using the noun, “collision”, rather than the verb: “X and Y were involved in a collision” or “a collision occurred between X and Y”.
“The vehicle overturned”
Again complex, because this one depends on context. As part of a chain of events, it’s a reasonable statement of fact; in isolation, it can border on the absurd. It normally appears as the latter.
“The vehicle crashed”
Similarly influenced by context, but—other than exceptional cases like handbrakes that become ineffective while parked—it’s people who crash vehicles. Suggestion: “The driver crashed [the vehicle].”
I’m sure there are plenty more phrases (ideas in the comments, please; I’ll try to add them) but hopefully the issue is sufficiently illustrated.
Inanimate objects do not do things. People do things. People cause things. Sit watching the CCTV for any car park and you’ll not see anything happen until people get in the cars. Leave a car as long as you like and it won’t collide with a person, overturn, lose control (nor indeed acquire it), or anything. It’ll just sit there until someone comes along, starts it up, and drives it.
No matter how acute the fear of falsely implying blame, to recognise that vehicles are not capable of action is merely to report fact. There is no implication of blame in the matter-of-fact statement of someone’s actions.
Every time a report ascribes an action or some responsibility to a vehicle (or—to an almost equally complete degree—to the weather, a pothole, or so on) it reinforces the societal acceptance of road danger.
Every time a car has agency, we hamper our own ability to address the problem.
Language is important. Responsibility is important. Feel what you will about blame, but there is no justification for offloading any agency onto vehicles.
The irony is that the phrasing supposedly results from the fear that talking about a driver might prejudice others’ opinions and potentially a legal case.
Because that’s precisely what not talking about a driver does.