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    Entries in Language in Thought and Action (1)

    Tuesday
    Jul242012

    All About You

    Plurality: the Concept of Quantity

    Lately, I’ve been listening to the beats of distant drums. The boom-ba-boom-ba-boom I’m hearing questions whether the state has a case against Shellie Zimmerman. Was the felony perjury charge against her too far reaching that it really holds little to no merit? Or was the state correct in issuing the arrest warrant?

    Some of what I’ve been reading comes down to a relatively simple, yet complex, statement similar to the one that former President Clinton once uttered. “It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is.” I think we’re familiar with that one — not that this has anything to do directly with what I’m writing about, but keep in mind that the 42nd president was also an attorney and we are talking about law. Besides, Clinton’s statement segues easily and smoothly into linguistics, which is the study of language. This post will come down to the meaning of you. Not you personally, mind you, but the meaning of the word itself. You.

    In college, I was fascinated with the English language. One of my first English course books was Language in Thought and Action by the late S.I. (Samuel Ichiye) Hayakawa, once a premier linguist, psychologist, semanticist, teacher and writer. Back then, he taught me a lot about word usage. There’s a good and bad way to say things, and depending on how you use words, the outcome could be disastrous. An example of this would be in how you might order something in a restaurant. Would you ask for a chopped up dead cow sandwich when all you really want is a hamburger?

    Another one of my favorite writers was (also the late) William Safire; well versed in lexicology, syntax, pragmatics and etymology, he was once the premier etymologist in the country, and for many, many years, I tried my best to read his column, On Language, every week in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Between those two men and my (very much alive at 93) uncle, David A. Kyle, they are who inspired me to write. Not that I learned anything. Anyway, back to the matter at hand…

    I’m going to ask you a simple question and I want no answer. I just want you to remember it for now and wait until I tidy it up at the end. By then, you should understand. Suppose you are at the mall without your significant other. You run into a friend with or without their spouse. You chat briefly and then are asked, “Would you like to join us for a double-date Friday night?” Keep that in mind.

    §

    We know what perjury is and we know Shellie Zimmerman was charged with it soon after an official courtroom proceeding. We also know why she was charged.

    “… whoever makes a false statement, which he or she does not believe to be true, under oath in an official proceeding in regard to any material matter, commits a felony of the third degree…” (F.S. 837.02 - Perjury in official proceedings)

    Do we agree that, in a legal sense, the charge will stand? Can we really make any call like that until after the dust settles, when a verdict is read? One of the most important things we need to keep in mind is that, in a courtroom, the battle between opposing sides comes down to the interpretations of laws and many of the statements made by people directly involved in the case and, most importantly, the defendant. That includes words and actions.

    During Ms. Zimmerman’s telephonic testimony regarding finances at her husband’s bond hearing on April 20th, she was first questioned by his defense attorney, Mark O’Mara. Here is part of the exchange between them:

    Q. Other major assets that you have which you can liquidate reasonably to assist in coming up with money for a bond?
    A. None that I know of.
    Q. I have discussed with you the pending motion to have your husband George declared indigent for cost, have I not?
    A. Yes, you have.
    Q. And is — are you of any financial means where you can assist in those costs?
    A. Uhm, not — not that I’m aware of.
    Q: I understand that you do have other family members present with you, and I’ll ask some more questions of them, but have you had discussions with them of at least trying to pull together some funds to accomplish a bond?
    A: We have discussed that —
    Q: Okay.
    A:— trying to pull together the members of the family to scrape up anything that we possibly can.

    Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda had an opportunity to cross examine her:

    Q. And you mentioned also, in terms of the ability of your husband to make a bond amount, that you all had no money, is that correct?
    A. To my knowledge, that is correct.
    Q: Were you aware of the website that Mr. Zimmerman or somebody on his behalf created?
    A: I’m aware of that website.
    Q: How much money is in that website right now? How much money as a result of that website was —-
    A: Currently, I do not know. 
    Q: Do you have any estimate as to how much money has already been obtained or collected?
    A: I do not.

    I don’t know if you are getting my drift or not by now, but let me say that there could be a possible problem over that final exchange and the word you. You see, there’s a method to my madness and it comes down to how that simple word is conceptualized. In the English language, there is no plural for this particular second-person pronoun. Singular is the same as plural, so it is open to interpretation. It could go either way.

    In the O’Mara exchange, “other major assets that you have…,” if you is taken as plural, it would include her husband, and it would change the entire meaning. De la Rionda was a bit clearer when he worded it, “‘you all’ had no money,” but the final exchange between them is the real quandary. “Do you have any estimate as to how much money has already been obtained or collected?” Is that singular or plural? You see, the secret jail house code conversations will show that she was aware of money, and lots of it, but did she have an estimate of the amount at the precise time she was questioned by the prosecutor? That could be a sticking point. She, by herself, denied knowing, but if de la Rionda’s usage was intended to be plural, then, legally, they both had an estimate; just like asking you out on a double-date. Singly, you as a word wouldn’t work for the state. As a couple, it would.

    Personally, I think the state has the goods on her — enough to convict, but you never know these days, as we all understand from the last Orlando debacle. Oh well, what will be will be. It is what it is, you know, and I guess, in the end, it may come down to what the meaning of the word “you” is.