Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Defuse or diffuse?

What's wrong with this sentence?
In the UK, the old offence of incitement has been replaced with the much weaker offence of ‘assisting and encouraging’, which includes such defuse crimes as ‘encouraging’ the accessory to a crime (rather than the principal offender), encouraging a preparatory offence (rather than a criminal act), and encouraging an offence which is at the time impossible to commit (therefore a crime that could never have happened, with all the encouragement in the world).
Spiked Online, 11 March 2013
Well, lots of things, although the title of this post gives a tiny clue as to where I'm going with this. You can choose from the following:
  1. It's too long, at 72 words
  2. The phrase "In the UK" implies that there is such a thing as UK law, which there isn't (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal systems)
  3. It uses a serial (Oxford or Harvard) comma: "a preparatory offence (rather than a criminal act), and…"
  4. It says "an offence which…" instead of "an offence that…"
  5. It talks about "defuse crimes"
Only 4 and 5 are actually wrong. The Oxford comma is only wrong in terms of style: few UK publications favour it and Spiked isn't one of them. In most US publications it would be fine (and probably compulsory). A 72-word sentence is generally not good style, but this sentence provides a list of legal definitions, which is bound to bump up the word count. It's readily comprehensible, so I'd leave it alone. Point 2 is almost the epitome of pernicketiness.

In Point 4, "impossible to commit" clearly distinguishes such an offence from all other offences, so the writer should have used 'that' instead of 'which' (see my earlier post here) 'Which' probably seemed preferable because of the awkward order of words.

But Point 5 is the real howler. The writer should have written 'diffuse'. She has used completely the wrong word, which in a piece about legal precision is a bad mistake.
Defuse (verb): to remove a fuse, or, when used figuratively, to make something safe
Diffuse (verb or adjective): widely scatter(ed)
'Defuse crimes' would be the illegal disarming of bombs, which I think neatly comes under Point 4: "an offence … impossible to commit".

Moral: Similar-sounding words can have diffuse meanings. When an editor spots such an obvious mistake, he'll suddenly find lots of other things wrong with your writing.

1 comment:

  1. Usually what I see is the reverse error: people writing about how "the problem has been diffused." Which really sounds bad--as if the problem hasn't been eliminated, but rather scattered around even more broadly...