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A Few Words for Truth in Advertising : Language: Ventura's law against misrepresentation says it all. That's the problem, according to the experts.

July 22, 1993

Legalese can be tortuous. The Ventura city law prohibiting misrepresentation is an example--far from the most convoluted one--of the confusion that occurs when the drafters try to fit it all into one sentence.

We asked three people, a literary deconstructionist, a law professor and a high school English teacher, if they could say it better.

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Ventura Sec 2212.2--Misrepresentations

It shall be unlawful for any person to sell, furnish, perform or in any way dispose of real or personal property, services, professional or otherwise, or anything of any nature whatsoever, directly or indirectly to the public, or to induce the public in any manner to enter into any obligation relating thereto, or to acquire title thereto, or any interest therein by means of publishing, circulating or causing to be made, published, or circulated before the public in the City in any newspaper, magazine, book, pamphlet, circular, letter, notice, handbill, poster or other publication of any bill board, sign, card, label or other advertising medium, including any electric sign, window sign showcase or window display or any other advertising device, or by public out-cry, or proclamation, or any other manner or means whatever, which advertising shall contain any statement, representation, or assertion concerning such real or personal property, service or anything so offered to the public, or concerning any circumstance or matter of fact connected in any way directly or indirectly with the proposed sale, or performance thereof, which statement or assertion is false or untrue in any respect or which is deceptive or misleading.

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Christopher Newfield is an assistant professor of English at UC Santa Barbara. He includes the French literary theory "deconstruction" as part of his teaching. Deconstruction proposes that, because of the very nature of language, no text can have a fixed, coherent meaning.

"The sentence is so full of description that it almost fails to represent anything," Newfield said. "Rather than make misrepresentation clear, it makes it more obscure. So the first deconstructive point might be that this language misses its mark: In the process of trying to be exact and complete, it creates difficulty and incompleteness.

"There's a further irony here. The language tends to recapitulate the phenomenon it refers to. This paragraph about misrepresentation is itself a misrepresentation of the issue because it is so obscure."

Law professor Chris Stone, who teaches the course "Law, Language and Ethics" at the USC Law Center, disagrees with Newfield's analysis.

"Maybe that sounds better in French," Stone said, "but I think that's worse than the (misrepresentation) law."

Stone said the Ventura law is over-designed, much the same way engineers build redundancy into a bridge--to ensure that it withstands unforeseen events.

"The guys writing this law against misrepresentation are concerned about loopholes. They want to be very specific because they are fencing with an unseen adversary, future lawyers who will try to find those loopholes."

Let Me Rephrase That

Stone said legal language can be either simple or complex based on its audience and purpose. The crisp, clear language of the U. S. Constitution is designed to invite interpretation, but ordinances such as Ventura's are designed to discourage interpretation.

"Sometimes legal language is dreadful and people don't understand it," Stone said. "If this were to be revised, it could be rephrased, certainly. Newspapers, magazines , etc., could be rewritten to simply say media ."

Jack Hobbs, a grammar teacher at Buena High School in Ventura, offered some more advice.

"The obfuscatory prolixity is getting in the way of the meaning. Try breaking this thing up into three or four sentences that will make things a little easier for your audience. It might begin with a general statement: 'It shall be unlawful for any person to misrepresent any services or goods through false, deceptive or misleading practices.' Then follow this with specifics."

Hobbs said that as a high school English exercise, the law would pass.

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