Home > Random, Research > Dr Robert Lawson: Language Expert (allegedly)

Dr Robert Lawson: Language Expert (allegedly)


I’m not quite sure why, but earlier on in the week I was asked to write up a short analysis of a letter a 16 year old young offender had written to the victim of his crime (below) for a piece in The Sun. It might have been because they reported on my Glasgow research earlier on in the year, but I didn’t ask, so don’t know for certain. Anyway, here’s the letter.

Instead of a heartfelt apology (which was the main purpose of the exercise), the author of the letter took it upon himself to educate his victim as to why they were robbed. What was particularly noticeable about the letter was that it was basically devoid of any culpability or responsibility on the part of the offender, and the blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the victim. I had quite a short deadline to turn my comments around (I was asked at about 4:30pm on Wednesday, and they wanted about 300 words by 6pm), and I’ve attached my analysis below (which ended up being around 500 words).

“The letter opens with an unusual mode of address; dear victim. By not using the addressees’ name, the author of the letter immediately dehumanises the person affected by the burglary, something which suggests a lack of empathy by the writer. Moreover, the letter is not a sign of contrition or apology. Instead, he uses the opportunity to put responsibility for the burglary on the victim. By calling the victim ‘dumb’ and ‘thick’, we’re under no illusion as to where blame is directed. The subtext here is that it was the victim’s own actions which led to the burglary happening. By running the addressee through their ‘dumb mistakes’ (they didn’t close their curtains, they didn’t close the kitchen window, and they live in a ‘high-risk’ area), he attempts to justify his actions and mitigate his responsibility. Such ‘techniques of neutralisation’ are common among people who commit criminal acts.

In terms of writing standards, the letter displays a number of basic errors of grammar, punctuation, capitalisation and sentence structure. Although the author of the letter is 16 years old, it would be unexpected for someone at GCSE level to make so many errors. For example, he mis-spells words like ‘basicly’ (basically), ‘dont no’ (don’t know) and ‘sympath and remores’ (sympathy and remorse), but he spells more complex words like ‘burglary’ and ‘bothered’ correctly. He also doesn’t appear to know how to use contracted forms properly (‘wouldnt’, ‘your’ and ‘dont’ are just some examples). But what’s interesting is that he sometimes does use the correct form. For example, he writes ‘Iam writing’ and ‘Im not going to show’ (both incorrect), but he also writes ‘I’m going to run you through the dumb mistakes you made’ (correct). This suggests that he at least has a very general idea of the correct form, but doesn’t do so consistently. It terms of capitalisation, it’s really difficult with such a short letter to come to any definitive conclusions why almost all instances of <w> and <s> are capitalised. The randomness of it could suggest that he doesn’t know how to apply the rules of capitalisation properly, but it could also be an example of his own stylistic quirk.

While the contents of the letter demonstrate a clear lack of remorse, the author has come to the conclusion that he isn’t to blame for what happened. Instead, he suggests that responsibility lies squarely with the homeowner. But while it’s easy to focus on how poorly written the letter is, this should only form part of the analysis. We have to look beyond the form of the letter and examine its message, and that message is a rejection of culpability and a lack of empathy with the victim. And it is this which is perhaps the most worrying part”.

There was a bunch of things I didn’t have space to talk about, including how this letter will likely be taken by the right wing as some sort of indication of the failure of education and the moral turpitude of young people today (because good people don’t write badly). But really, would it be alright if the letter had been written in Standard English, with no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors? Would it have been more acceptable, or would we have spilled the same kind of vitriol I’ve been reading in various comment pages on the internet about what should be done to the author? I tried to get people to focus on the message of the letter rather than the form, but how far people will take notice of it is debatable.

Oh, and for those interested in seeing what happens when an article goes through various edits and sub-edits? The final version as printed in the paper is below… Incidentally, I’m really embarrassed about the ‘language expert’ by-line… That wasn’t my idea. Honest.

The Social Linguist

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  1. a.d.p-h
    November 26, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    In terms of the process of editing, but these statements stand out to me (apart from the entirely omitted second paragraph):

    (1) people who commit criminal acts
    (2) criminals

    Maybe (1) and (2) pretty much mean the same thing. But there’s clearly a difference. Your original reads slightly more “academically”, if only because it has a post-modifying embedded clause. But there also seems (the effect of this in many ways) to be the want not to use hyperbole. “People who commit criminal acts” seems to avoid the kind of connotations that “criminals” has. With regards to your report and how that has been edited, it doesn’t seem to me to change the message in any substantial way. But this sort of editing does, at least, have the potential to distort the original meaning in a dangerous way. For me, it’s an (albeit minor) example of the way that “academic research” is mis-translated when it is dispersed into the public domain.

  2. November 30, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I had only a quick look through, but yeah, the use of nominalisation here is really interesting. But I mean, criminals aren’t people though, right (totally tongue-in-cheek obviously)?

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