Why You Keep Rereading Some Sentences

Hint: The problem is the writing, not you

Posted Mar 16, 2017

During the last election, American readers doubtless struggled with the language of ballot initiatives. I breezed into my local polling station, expecting to spend only minutes there, based on my lightning reading skills and comprehensive knowledge of who and what was on the ballot. Instead, I found myself frozen over the language of proposed amendments. But at least I avoided facing the likes of one Colorado ballot initiative, Amendment T:

“Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?”

Does "yes" mean "yes" here—or does "yes" actually mean no? If you find yourself tempted to skip the meaning entirely, consider those explosive words "slavery" and "involuntary servitude" in the context of America's early history as a British penal colony and its particularly bleak history of slavery. So let's assume you're stuck with your ballot at a Colorado polling station, terrified you're either making slavery legal or failing to make it illegal.

We must unpack that amendment before you can vote. Or decide whatever the proposed amendment meant. In this particular case, try to determine the status quo before you figure out what the proposed changes mean. If we were going to write this amendment to be readable, we would use clarity principles to weed out the nominalizations and Latinate expressions to make them more concrete. So we get

"In Colorado, the constitution makes slavery or forced labor of any kind illegal."

This rephrasing is easier to picture and understand, rather than trying to work with "prohibition" and "involuntary servitude." Since the writers of the amendment apparently wanted to confuse the christ out of anyone reading it, the writers' use of "slavery" is surprising. You would have to know nothing whatever about America to assume that the word "slavery" is in any way either neutral or confusing.

Now onto the implied double-barreled negatives: "removal of the exception." For clarity's sake, let's begin with "exception" and rephrase again:

"In Colorado, the constitution makes slavery or forced labor of any kind illegal, except to punish convicted felons."

This version now  makes "removal" a bit less of the impossible-to-understand reversal:

"Should Colorado remove from its constitution the right to punish convicted felons through forced labor?"

Now, this interpretation relies on a straightforward interpretation of the potential murky "concerning the removal," which could, if the amendment's authors were truly being tricky, mean that the voter is really being asked,

"Should Colorado reinstate the right to punish convicted felons through forced labor?"

With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can cheat and check the names of the registered issue committees in Colorado on the amendment, which render the meaning in bracingly clear terms. The in-favor committee went by the name the No Slavery, No Exceptions Committee.

Enough said.

Except that the legislative writers who authored Amendment T have either spent too much time drafting legalese that ensures only another Juris Doctorate can comprehend it—or that legislators deliberately write initiatives in such jungly thickets of double negatives that voters must rely on special interest groups giving them the skinny on how to vote.

In the instance of Amendment T, with no opposing committee willing to declare itself, the amendment just seems to suffer from that old disease: Written by Lawyer.