November 07, 2006

Factivity/Imprecise Use of Language Watch

[Oh, and it's election day. Vote.]

A non-factive use of 'known' as an adjective:

A Marine pleaded guilty Monday to aggravated assault and conspiracy to obstruct justice before testifying that his squad executed a known insurgent who turned out to be a civilian.

The circumstances are described more fully later in the article:

Jackson said that to his knowledge the man was a known insurgent. He learned later that it was Awad, he said. He said another serviceman told him that if anyone asked about the incident, he should "stick to the story," Jackson testified.

The use of 'known' for something that turns out to be false could be a case of protagonist projection (see also). The 'known' is in Jackson's reported testimony, but so is 'turned out to be a civilian', so we can't explain the use of 'known' simply by saying that Jackson said it was known.

I'm inclined to think that this is just sloppy wording though. We already have another instance of sloppy wording; the term for shooting a prisoner by the side of the road is not 'execution' but 'murder' or 'war crime'. Lessons about the advisability and morality of setting off civil wars and asking our troops to fight in them with no clear mission are left to the reader.

(via TPMMuckracker)

Posted by Matt Weiner at November 7, 2006 06:46 AM

Okay, you announced not a hiatus, but a decrease in posting -- but that seems not to be true either. So there.

Now regarding the post. I was inclined to agree that the wording was sloppy, but upon reflection, I think the writer might actually be mistaken about whether "known" can or should be used this way. God knows I can be sloppy when I write, but I would never, ever, use "known" to describe someone who turned out not to be an insurgent. I would say, "purported to be an insurgent" or something like that.

The sentence, "Jackson said that to his knowledge the man was a known insurgent" is bizarre. I don't think a mistake like this would slip by unnoticed unless the writer and the editor thought it made sense.

So put me down for "protagonist projection", which, like the "execution" example, is exculpatory of the soldier's behavior. I don't think that's accidental.

Posted by: dagger aleph at November 7, 2006 08:46 AM

You seem to be supposing that "known insurgent" just has the compositional meaning of "someone whom we know to be an insurgent." It seems to have become a fixed phrase in occupation parlance, so that calling someone a "known insurgent" is not a claim about our knowledge about them but a claim about our entitlement to be cavalier about their life.

Posted by: P.D. at November 7, 2006 06:43 PM

Also sloppy editing seems to be the last sentence quoted, "he said ..., Jackson testified" -- makes it sound like Jackson is testifying that somebody said ..., unless you know that "he" refers to Jackson, so that reading would not make any sense, and to make sense of the sentence you need to chop off the "Jackson testified" or the "he said".

Posted by: The Modesto Kid at November 11, 2006 05:46 AM