Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Serious Charges

Posted by Neal on September 22, 2010

On the front page of the Columbus Dispatch today, I read about a raid on a marijuana farm in Muskingum County. I was interested to read the following in the third paragraph:

[A]uthorities arrested 10 Mexican nationals and charged them with conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields about 90 miles apart.

Actually, that was part of the third sentence in the article, but this is a newspaper we’re talking about, so sentences and paragraphs amount to the same thing.
Anyway, those are serious charges: conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields about 90 miles apart. Consider what the authorities could have charged the growers with:

  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana
  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two fields
  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields
  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two fields 90 miles apart

But no, they threw the book at these guys, and charged them with conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields about 90 miles apart. What would they have charged them with if they had had a conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in three fields, two of them 30 miles apart, two of them 40 miles apart, and two of them 20 miles apart, with two fields carefully tended and one haphazardly tended?

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10 Responses to “Serious Charges”

  1. The Ridger said

    Man, you are so literal!

    But you made me laugh. Thanks!

  2. Jonathon said

    Gotta love that journalistic impulse to cram every important detail in the first sentence.

    But it made me laugh too.

  3. Ran said

    Would this be a de dicto vs. de re ambiguity?

    I agree that “charged with” works best with its complement read de dicto (as in “[…] charged with three counts of […]“), but uses abound where a de re reading is intended (as in “[…] charged with killing […]“).

    • Neal said

      That’s a really interesting way to look at it. Thanks for the links. On the one hand, this ambiguity (or whatever it is) doesn’t correspond to classical de dicto/de re situations, i.e. things in the scope of intensional verbs like believe, want or seek. On the other hand, theoretical considerations shouldn’t put blinders on me to what does, now that you point it out, have that same kind of dicto/re feel to it.

      • Walden said

        But wouldn’t the fact that these nationals were charged with “conspiring” satisfy the de dicto/de re condition of intention? The dictionary says that conspiring is planning, and planning would seem to be intending.

        I have just discovered this column the other day (while Googling for “garbage maggots”) and am really enjoying it. Thanks.

        Walden

      • Neal said

        Whoops! I went and used a technical term that it took me quite a while to understand, without explaining it. Intensional is not the same thing as intentional. Intensional means “relating to a term’s intension, i.e. its meaning across possible worlds”. So for example, believe Barack Obama is a Muslim could mean different things depending on what world (the speaker thinks) we live in. For example, it would mean “believe the President of the US is a Muslim” in a world like this one; it would mean “believe the guy who invented Facebook is a Muslim” to someone who thinks the guy who invented Facebook is Barack Obama.

  4. Yes but there are over a million Google hits for “charged with the murder of“, which by your reckoning means there must be separate laws pertaining to each individual. Just imagine the Parliamentary debates that must follow every birth.

    • Neal said

      That’s a good point. Comparing your example with the one from the news article, I think maybe the lack of a the is part of the problem. I’m fine with charged with THE conspiracy to do whatever at specific times and places, but just charged with conspiracy has me expecting something more general.

  5. I was just talking to my wife about this the other day, it helped me win a discussion with her.

  6. ball2000 said

    You misunderstood. Two groups of defendants were charged with exactly the same complex crime, about 90 miles apart. What are the chances!

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