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Be precise and be polite and you will be better understood

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I think that David Suitor's plea (aj letters 14/10/99) that bad language should be kept out of 'any professional journal' must in principle be right, but editors often face difficult choices in these matters.

They do so for example, in reporting the legal case of Snook v Mannion, where Judge Ormrod of the Queen's Bench Division had to review at appeal the meaning of the term 'f*** off'. The court's decision is important for everybody, especially those who wish to be clearly understood when making requests or giving instructions, so architects read on ...

Mr Snook, having arrived home and parked his car in his drive, was confronted by two police officers who had pursued him in their squad car. Refusing a breathalyser test with the words 'f***-off' Snook was duly arrested and, following blood tests, was convicted by local magistrates for drunken driving. His appeal defence, accepting his inebriation, was based solely on the principle that despite the Defendant's 'request' that the police leave his premises they had failed to do so. It was alleged that after the request had been made their 'presence on his driveway was illegal and any subsequent action (eg his arrest) would also be illegal.'

Apparently, unless we provide a locked gate to our drive, or maintain a clear sign such as 'Police Keep Out' prominently displayed, police officers, like the postman and anyone else, have an implied right to enter private property and proceed to the front or back door in pursuit of their legitimate business.

However, if asked to leave they must do so immediately as their continued presence on private property, even for purposes of arrest, would require a warrant.

So the crucial issue in this case, which of course had to be reported in the legal journals in precise and vulgar detail, was whether Snook had made his request clear. Was he terminating the police officers' implied licence to be on his property for their legal business, or was the term merely a crude expression which had contained no meaningful request or instructions?

Sensibly, counsel for the defendant did not claim that the words 'f*** off' were to be exclusively relied upon as an indication of Snook's request. In a previous case this term had been viewed as an obscenity rather than a request (Gilham v Breidenbach).

Instead, counsel argued that Snook had made his intentions clear through his actions as well as his words. In essence, it was alleged that the police officers must have realised that anyone rushing to the sanctuary of their drive would not wish to be breathalysed. This combined with his rude remark when approached was, the defence claimed, an absolutely clear indication of his wish that the police should leave him without further interruption (an Englishman's house is surely his castle!) .

The officers accepted that Snook had told them to 'f*** off' but claimed that 'they had not gained any impression that the defendant was intimating to them that their licence to come onto his property was being revoked or that they were being asked to leave.' It could only happen here.

In dismissing the appeal, Judge Ormrod said, 'ingenious as the defence submission is, we must, with regret, reject it.' He concluded that the police had decided that Snook had not made his request clear - perhaps he was merely refusing to be breathalysed which, as an isolated act, he was not entitled to do!

And the lesson of this story? Clearly not only is swearing offensive, as Mr Suitor's letter so properly points out, but it is also prone to misinterpretation. Whenever you make requests or give instructions, especially in your formal role as an architect, you should always be very precise. If Snook had said 'I withdraw the implied licence that you enjoy to enter my driveway - I require you to leave', the police would have been obliged to rush off for a warrant, allowing their 'quarry' to enjoy a whisky or two before their return thus rendering their breathalyser test useless!

So, it appears that Mr Suitor gives us all good advice in his letter: bad language really doesn't pay. But it is sometimes necessary for an editor to print it in all its blue glory if an issue is to be properly reported.

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