Confusing hedges

… ou : comment (ne pas) atténuer ses propos. Là où on emploie le conditionnel en français, l’anglais a des adverbes à sa disposition. On appelle cela un hedge. Mais parfois, signaler qu’il y a un doute sur ce qui est affirmé peut embrouiller la syntaxe.

  • 2006-02-17
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Imagine A (male) shot and killed B. In addition, some days earlier, A tried to pull off an Internet scam. This situation could be bundled into one sentence like this:

  • A tried to pull off an Internet scam just days before he shot and killed B.

But as long as A isn’t convicted and sentenced, the press aren’t supposed to employ this sort of plain language. Which is entirely proper, given that the journalists are unlikely to have been eyewitnesses of the sad events. In come the hedges. At Newsforge, the result is:

  • Suspected murderer Neil Entwistle was trying to sell on auction Web site eBay just days before he allegedly shot and killed his wife and infant child.#[1]

This sentence, however, throws my logic module into a loop. The words suspected and allegedly point to Mr Entwistle’s potential innocence. But if he is innocent, he tricked (shouldn’t there be an “allegedly” here, too?) people into buying free software just days before he — did nothing else in particular. The reader is being left hanging out in the air.

It’s got something to do with allegedly functioning as a sentence adverb. Its scope extends beyond just the verb shot (you don’t “allegedly shoot” someone) . The last part of the sentence means “it has been alleged that + [Subject] + [Predicate]”. And the alleging itself took place long (not “just”) after he made questionable use of eBay, if that’s what he did.

A possible way out of the confusion would have been to pack the entire allegation bit into the first part of the sentence: N. E., who is suspected of shooting his wife and infant child, was trying to sell … just days before the killing took place.

French goes about hedges differently. There are adverbs, of course, but most importantly, the verb is changed to the conditional#[2]. But it is quite impossible to translate the Newsforge writer’s construction very closely: avant que (before, if followed by a finite verb) forces you to employ the subjunctive mood, and your verb forms go haywire. Nominalising the verb won’t help: “avant d’avoir tué” has no trace of a hedge. But you can replace it with a noun. The press would definitely use the conditional for try to sell … on eBay as well and probably come up with something along the lines of Accusé du meurtre de son épouse et de leur enfant, N. E. aurait essayé de vendre… juste quelques jours avant la tuerie.

[Spell-check didn’t know: nominalising (huh — but it’s a new installation; suggestion: criminalising); anarthrous (suggestion: arthrograms).]

Notes: [1]: Note the two anarthrous noun phrases. [2]: In the French-speaking world, entire mailing lists have gone up in flame-wars over the question whether the conditionnel is a tense or a mood. Naively, I’d have opted for “mood” without batting an eye, but some syntactic uses of the conditional do indeed complicated matters slightly.