Preparing a post for the other blog I write—about professor-on-student sexual harassment and assault—I was searching through Davidson College’s policy on faculty-student fraternization when I came upon this grammatical error from section 2.5.10.E.:
E. Employee / Student Dating and Relationships (also listed as part of the Consensual Relationships Policy)
In addition to the above restrictions on workplace dating and relationships, faculty members and staff are prohibited from dating students, asking students for dates, engaging in amorous or sexual activities with students, asking students to engage in amorous or sexual activities, or engaging in any activities designed to encourage or which does encourage an amorous or sexual relationship with a student when:
1. The student is enrolled in a course being taught by the faculty member; or
2. The student’s academic work, admissions, enrollment, athletic, or other educational participation or programming is being supervised or subject to review in any way by the faculty member or staff. (p.80)
The error (bolded) is one referred to as “agreement in number”: the “does” before the colon should be the plural “do,” since the noun it pairs with, “activities,” is plural.
Now that I’ve reported the technical problem to the person on the college’s staff who can fix it, I’d like to step back a few feet from the passage in question and note that the real problem with it can’t be resolved just by correcting the grammatical error, which is a symptom of a larger problem: convolution. Before the sentence lumbers to its close, it encompasses 107 words. It’s a whole paragraph, and not a short one. The person who wrote it got caught somewhere along the way in a verbal spider’s web. As a result, what modifies what, what goes with what, became lost—too difficult to ascertain—as the sentence escaped the writer’s control. Ultimately, the sentence exemplifies the worst traits of bureaucratic style—if the person writing it can’t keep it straight, the reader has little hope of following along.
Policy, particularly legal policy, invites this kind of wordiness and muddiness, as probably no one would deny. Ironically, however, most policy is written up for the very purpose of informing people who need to know about it. Whoever publishes it wants it to be heeded. Doubly ironically, to my mind, this is one specific policy that not just faculty and staff should know, but that students should, too. Its benefit to students is difficult to overstate. But consider whether any student is likely to find this policy buried on p. 80, in section 2.5.10.E., of the Faculty Handbook. Do faculty even know it’s there?
That a policy capable of helping many people a great deal is so woefully obscure is suggested especially by that absurdly difficult numbering and lettering system: 2.5.10.E. indeed! Such numbering obviously derives from legal documents. What the situation calls for, however, is plain English that everyone can find and comprehend.
See the Sexual Harassment blog for further commentary.