Ambiguity in English language is root of Doan's problems

I want to comment on the inadequacy of specificity of intention in using some words in the English language, particularly the word "our." The lack of specificity of intention in the words in a speech makes a counsel's job difficult and questionable. At least in one language, my language, Telugu, there is no such lack of specificity to tell who is intended by "our." For example, look at the paragraph below from an FCW.com story titled "Waxman to Doan: It's time to go" by Matthew Weigelt, published June 13. "The Office of Special Counsel recently found Doan in violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits the use of government resources or time for political ends. OSC's investigation focused on a PowerPoint presentation a White House aide gave in January at GSA headquarters regarding the standings for Republicans and Democrats in the upcoming election. Witnesses said Doan asked, 'How can we help our candidates?' during the presentation."

Distinguishing between the meanings of "our" in the phrase "our candidates" in the last sentence is of primary importance in ascribing partisan motive to Doan's speech. The two meanings can be characterized as "exclusive our" and "inclusive our." "Our" in the sentence without any further qualifiers has two confounded contextual meanings in it. Each meaning is possible because of a lack of clarity of "our" in the English language, coupled with the nonexistence of two separate words for the two separate meanings.

First let us discuss the two meanings of "our" in "our candidates":
1. Exclusive our -- Only those candidates that are of Doan's party are intended to benefit and all other parties' candidates are excluded. With this interpretation, Doan's speech implies she violated the Hatch Act because she would have had used government resources for partisan political purposes.
2. Inclusive our -- Not only those candidates that are of Doan's party are intended to benefit but all other parties' candidates, too. All candidates who are competing in the arena of politics no matter what party they belong to are included as the benefit recipients. With this interpretation of "our candidates," Doan would not be in violation of the act because she had offered help in a nonpartisan manner and would not have had used government resources for partisan political purposes.


Which of the two meanings is applicable is an open question. That both meanings are equally applicable is not debatable solely based on the quoted speech. This lack of specificity of applicable meaning is due to the nonexistence of two specific words for the two specific meanings of "our." But in Telugu there are two specific words: "maa" and "mana." The first is pronounced using A as the long A as in "father." It means the "exclusive our" "Mana," pronounced with A being a short A in both places. It means "inclusive our." I would suggest that we start importing these two words from Telugu into English for the clarity of speech. Maa candidates: Only our party candidates. Mana candidates: All parties' candidates.

Ramanuj Chilakamarri
Federal Systems Integration and Management Center
Office of Assisted Acquisition Services
Federal Acquisition Service
General Services Administration

Featured

  • Defense
    The Pentagon (Photo by Ivan Cholakov / Shutterstock)

    DOD CIO hits pause on JEDI cloud acquisition

    Dana Deasy set cloud as his office's top priority. But when it comes to the JEDI request for proposal, he's directed staff to "pause" to compile a comprehensive review.

  • Cybersecurity
    By Gorodenkoff shutterstock ID 761940757

    Waging cyber war without a rulebook

    As the U.S. looks to go on the offense in the cyber domain, critical questions remain unanswered around who will take the lead and how clearly to draw the rules of engagement.

  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards - https://governmentinnovationawards.com

    Deadline extended for Rising Star nominations

    You now have until July 18 to help us identify the early-career innovators and change agents in government IT.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.