Tuesday, May 17, 2005

'Face' Dances

At what point do you face something? Stories that mention prison sentences routinely use the verb "face," but they vary on what exactly they mean by that. Observe:

a. If convicted, he could face a possible prison term of up to 10 years.
b. If convicted, he could face a prison term of up to 10 years.
c. If convicted, he faces a possible prison term of up to 10 years.
d. He could face a possible prison term of up to 10 years.
e. If convicted, he faces a prison term of up to 10 years.
f. He faces a possible prison term of up to 10 years.
g. He could face a prison term of up to 10 years.
h. He faces a prison term of up to 10 years.
i. He faces a prison term of 10 years.

I think we would all agree that (a) overqualifies things to the point of redundancy. And most of us would agree that (i) doesn't qualify things enough. Reasonable people will differ, but I vote for (h). I think you could face time in prison without being sentenced to time in prison. And -- context, context, context -- do you think any readers need to be told that the prison sentence would apply only in the case of a conviction?

If you're inclined to play things extremely safe, there's a (j):

If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

If you're inclined to object to "up to" when there's no yardstick involved, you're at the wrong site.

6 comments:

abgs said...

As long as it's not "up to a possible maximum of 10-15 years to life (or more!)."

The "to up to" juxtaposition does jar the eye a little. If you're moving to the conditional (subjuctive) mood anyway, it would be correct to say "he could be sentenced to 10 years" (though we lose the information about the maximum). "Of up to" in example (h) scans much more easily. I prefer (f) myself, in case (h) might imply that he is already convicted and a prison term is inevitable, with only the question of time remaining. Again, context will dictate which is appropriate.

mattr said...

Here in Australia we're all closely following the trial in Bali of our own Schapelle Corby, who is charged with smugging drugs. There's always been a lot of speculation about the sentence she faces: first the prosecution had to decide whether they would seek the death penalty; now the judge has to decide whether to convict her; and there'll be a separate sentencing decision after that.

From the very beginning, the papers have been saying that she faces the death penalty, which always seemed a bit premature given the stages involved. Actually, they started out saying "she faces the firing squad", which must be jumping the gun (as it were) -- surely you don't face the firing squad until you're actually facing the firing squad.

However, now that the prosecution has asked for life imprisonment, I'd feel comfortable saying that she faces that, even though she hasn't been convicted yet (and even though the judge might hand down a lesser sentence).

Eric "Babe" Morse said...

My vote's for f or g... I think folks need to be told it's only a possibility at this point. I feel h and i imply it's a done deal, and the sentence looms. I don't think folks (even reasonable people) should assume that the conviction is still pending... if h or i were all I got from the story (headline, glance at the lead), I could get the wrong idea about the poor fellow's status.
And I am so down with abgs' "maximum of 10-25 years." That is quite egregious, and quite common.

As an aside, The Faces box set's out. As box sets do, it paints the band as genre-defining. In anticipation of its release, the headline could have read:

FACES FACE FACE LIFT

Stephen Jones said...

Readers don't need to be told that the prison sentence would apply only in the case of a conviction? but they may well need to be told whether the person has been convicted yet or not.

mattr said...

Yes, and if the Faces' box set were heavily promoted by UK music magazine Face, of course it would be:

FACES FACE FACE FACE LIFT

And if the Faces were facing off another up-and-coming band also called the Faces, you'd have:

FACES FACES FACE FACE FACE FACE LIFT

Isn't it funny how if you repeat a certain word so often you start to wonder whether it really is a word after all?

Dr Zen said...

One doesn't face a sentence until one is convicted. When you face adversity with courage, that doesn't mean to say you expect some adversity at some point in the future, it means you're already suffering it. I think that face is a good word for confronting what you have, but is diluted by its use as you have it here. I accept that this is one more losing battle because "face" is creeping lexically into including an idea of "expecting", but if copy editors don't fight those battles nonetheless, who will?

I think none of the sentences given is correct. (h) says he's been convicted and faces a sentence, which is being decided. I like with "If convicted, he will face a prison sentence of up to ten years" too. If he's convicted, he'll certainly face a sentence. There's no "could" about it. Using "could" implies that upon conviction, he might just be set free. So (j) is impossible too.