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Caught on the Fly: Where’s the For?

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Ted Landphair's America Buses

Caught on the Fly: Where’s the For?

Ted Landphair
Voice of America
December 8, 2010

Listen to Caught on the Fly: Where’s the For? - MP3 - 2.5MB - 6:05

School BusLet’s see. Red, blinking lights and a big-old stop sign next to the driver mean . . . speed right on by? Try again. (Svadilfiri, Flickr Creative Commons) Trailer ParkThings don’t look so prosperous, in this row at least, at a trailer park on the edge of the prairie. (Charles Henry, Flickr Creative Commons) Gas Pump Handle

Where’s the For?

My colleague Julie Taboh passed me a Washington Post article on which she scribbled the following note, replete with exclamation points:

TED! The importance of prepositions!

It seems that a fellow named John Mendez, of Woodbridge, Virginia, was having a bad day. His tools had just been stolen, and he had been laid off from his job. So he was likely out of sorts when he came upon a school bus, loaded with children, that was stopped with its red lights flashing and its “STOP” sign extended outside the driver’s window.

Whether he was or wasn’t preoccupied, Mendez drove right past the bus and into the clutches of a waiting police officer, who cited him for reckless driving — a serious charge that carries the potential of jail time and a hefty fine.

In that situation, most people I know would have gone before the judge, pleaded “guilty with an explanation,” and asked for leniency, considering the circumstances.

Mendez not only pleaded “not guilty,” he beat the rap, despite clear evidence that he had, indeed, lurched around a stopped school bus, potentially endangering the lives of little ones and their parents who could have popped out from in front of the bus.

Mendez’s defense was ingenious and indisputable.

He simply didn’t do what he was charged with, and he could prove it.

Here’s the 40-year-old Virginia statute covering the situation:

A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

Nope, never did such a thing, Mendez told the court.

And the judge reluctantly agreed with him, acquitted him, and sent him on his merry way without any sort of penalty.

How is that possible? Read the statute again, slowly, word for word.

If you look carefully, because of a single missing preposition, perhaps “for,” the language says nothing at all about passing stopped school buses.

As it reads, one can be deemed reckless for stopping the school bus. The statute says nothing about failing to stop for it!

Mendez didn’t stop the bus, he pointed out. It was already at a standstill, idling. He was, the judge had to agree, as innocent as the day is long.

And the way things work in state bureaucracies, the law can’t be changed until the newly elected Virginia legislature convenes in January; even worse, any amended law — one with the added “for” — won’t take effect until June.

I doubt that means that drivers will now whiz past stopped school buses with impunity in Virginia, since I’m sure law enforcement will find something besides reckless-driving charges to bring in such circumstances.

But what happened in Woodbridge says something about both John Mendez’s astute eye for detail and about, as Julie puts it, “the importance of prepositions.”

As she and I later discussed, wee prepositions are tricky, especially for immigrants for whom English is a second language. They often stick the wrong one into sentences because the wording would be quite different in their native languages.

My next-cubicle neighbor, Greek-born Penelope Poulou, gave me an illustration. Americans say, “I believe in you” in English. But the equivalent in Greek, if you tried to translate it word for word into English, would be, “I believe to you.”

No doubt lots of English-learning newcomers have said words to the effect of, “I believe to you” and been sternly corrected or even laughed at.

Prepositions aren’t consistent, even IN English. Why, for instance, do we say we’re “on the train,” but we’re “in the car”? We’re in the train, too, of course. But if we said we were “on the car,” that would conjure up images of silent-film slapstick stars balancing atop an automobile’s roof in heavy traffic.

The Virginia school-bus law didn’t use the wrong word, of course. It left a key little word out. In either case, be on the lookout for sneaky, powerful prepositions.

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