Saturday, 11 February 2012


Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

This is Chomsky’s famous example of a sentence that, though grammatically perfect, is devoid of meaning.   T S Eliot is also entitled to say ‘I think we are in rats’ alley, where the dead men lost their bones’, for the same reason: English is being used in both cases at one remove from pure meaning.  Chomsky is demonstrating the divorce between structure and content; whilst Eliot is showing us that meaning can be made to sit some way behind both.  It’s the distinction between the two functions of language: to communicate, and to convey.

Which brings me to the point: should Abu Qatada be deported to Jordan?  The arguments hinge around the use of the word ‘evidence’, and in this case, we can home in on Chomsky rather than Eliot, communicate rather than convey, because, for once, a word means something that (granted the nuances of differing legal systems) can be agreed upon to mean one thing: evidence is information or allegation that can be presented in a court of law and demonstrated to be true.

In this case (and any other), it would be for the court to establish both of these criteria.  So, in this country, we are told that he can’t be tried because the ‘evidence’ against him cannot be exposed to public view for fear of prejudicing the safety or viability of the source.  Fine.  By definition, that’s not evidence, because you’re not prepared to disclose it in court.  So there’s no case.  Similarly, in Jordan, by the same test, if ‘evidence’ has been gleaned by means accepted to be illegal, again, there is no evidence.

I personally couldn’t care less whether this bloke is renditioned to Jordan, stuck back to rot in a British gaol, tried, convicted or acquitted in either place, or set free to roam the world, pathetic but harmless as a stinking Lazarus.  I do care about my language though.

Incidentally, colourless green ideas don’t sleep furiously; and we are indeed in rats’ alley, but haven’t lost our bones.


  1. Interesting. I didn't realise that evidence becomes invalid as soon as a decision is taken not to disclose it in a court of law.

  2. I just found a mouse in the drive that had lost its head. That is, not in the sense of having mislaid it (for that would be non-sense) but it was not attached to its body.

  3. Z - is it stuck to one of your car tyres?

  4. Martin, it certainly does, in that court of law! That was my point - that in a legal context, the use of the word 'evidence' to refer to 'information' that forms no part of a trial submission risks a pernicious dilution of the rule of law. I may have to blog again about this.

    Z and AQ - have you strayed into the wrong blog by any chance?

  5. It's a fascinating area, Tim. Thanks for flagging it up. I worked in a team, supporting lawyers in an academic context, for a number of years, so my interest is always roused by this kind of examination.

  6. If he can't be tried I don't see how he can be kept in custody. But I expect there's some amendment or other under the terrorism laws that makes it look approximately legal.

  7. Strange they can't find a way for witnesses to testify anonymously in this day and age.
    Ms May is working on it though. I think it's getting personal...

  8. The plot thickens, now that he's been 'released', and so poses a 'serious threat to our human rights' (Tory MP, paraphrased), even though he has to get permission to go to the loo. (I exaggerate, but not much.)
    Keep digging, government. Any minute now I expect Cameron to blame it all on the last lot.