Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Cannot vs. would not comment

Fairly regularly, I see sentences like this in stories:

"Mayor Jane Darby said she cannot comment because the lawsuit is ongoing." (Group sues Edisto Beach after town bans religious worship services from its civic center)

She certainly can comment if she wants to, unless there is a clear policy, law, etc., that prevents her.

And maybe there is. But too often stories say an official said he or she "cannot" comment. Often, a stock phrase that like "because the lawsuit is ongoing" is thrown in - phrases that when you parse them really don't say much.

And that subtly makes us complicit in one of the favorite parlor games of many politicians and too many public officials:  linguistic obfuscation.

She would not comment. It's a conscious decision. We should make clear to readers/users that's the case.

If an official says he or she can't comment, then the conversation should be like this:

Them: I'm sorry, I can't comment on that.

You: Why is that?

Them: It's an ongoing legal case.

You: Yes, but why can't you comment? Is there a policy or is this your decision.

Them: I just don't comment on ongoing cases.

You: OK, then you would not comment. I understand.

If, OTOH, there's this:

You: Yes, but why can't you comment? Is there a policy or is this your decision?

Them: Yes, we have a policy against commenting in such cases.

You: Oh, is that a written policy? Where can I get a copy of it?

Them: Uh ....

Then I'd probably still say the person would not comment and cited a (fill in your governing body) policy against talking about ongoing legal cases. (And you should continue pressing for that policy, just because ...)

If the person were able to produce details of that policy or say it was on the advice of a lawyer, etc., then "can't" is closer to acceptable. But you now know details of why and should tell folks.

And even then, I think I'd favor "would not" with the explanation.

The only times I think "cannot" is clearly called for is when there are legal repercussions if the person talks. So if the mayor says she can't comment because of a judge's gag order or she can't comment because state law says officials can't talk about such and such, then OK.

In most cases, whether to comment is a decision made with free will, which takes "would." Even with a "policy," a person usually is free to decide to ignore it. (All the time we use anonymous sources who are doing just that, don't we? So that little nicety doesn't seem to trouble us.)

"Can't" seldom should be used, and when it is it should always have solid explanation, not just a tossed-off stock phrase, because the subtle but important implication is that the decision is being taken out of the person's hands. If we acquiesce, it provides a veil of plausible deniability. It's a reason pols and public officials like to use it, just as they adore the passive ("mistakes were made").

Our job isn't to provide linguistic cover.

(Usage notes:

- The widely established form is "declined to", not just "declined," comment. You decline something offered to you (another piece of pie, perhaps), but you decline to offer something (in this case, a comment) to someone else. The argument could be that you are declining the chance to comment, shortened to declined comment, but that's really not the sense of the interaction. And why even use that bureaucratic form when "would not" is perfectly fine?

- Avoid "refused" - the connotation has overtones of malice on your part. But if you catch his or her honor carting away a bag of money and you ask what's up and all you get is stony silence, then, yeah, "refused" might fit the bill.)

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