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I apologise for this long quote's intricacy, but I simply wish to practice parsing long sentences replete with negations. Below, the bolded 3 negatives (because unless is a negative conditional), hamstring my understanding. So please show all steps and thought processes on parsing them.

Source: p 109, How the Law Works, by Gary Slapper

However, it is possible for Acts to create offences – [...] – that do not require any mens rea, or guilty mind, in order for the defendant to be convicted. But it is right for society to be wary about the number of such offences, so the courts presume that a statute does not impose criminal liability without [the need for proof of mens rea][1] unless it specifies explicitly that that[1] is what it is doing.

  • Are you asking what these sentences mean, or how they might be rewritten? We can address meaning; but rewriting would mean obscuring the authors' careful construction of their arguments. – StoneyB Aug 14 '14 at 14:30
  • @StoneyB: More about 'how they might be rewritten' please, so that I can learn and be advised on how to resolve these turgid, diffuse sentences in general and in the main? Somehow, I'm guessing that these authors could've simplified their sentences? Are all those negatives really vital? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Aug 14 '14 at 14:32
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    I believe that in fact they are. In your first example, the author 1) opens by speaking of statutes which create offences which do NOT require proof of mens rea. He then 2) speaks of the courts' presumption that a statute does NOT do this (that is, it does NOT NOT require proof of mens rea) 3) UNLESS the statute explicitly specifies that it DOES do this. To "consolidate" the negatives might make the local meaning clearer but would make the progression of the argument muddy. – StoneyB Aug 14 '14 at 15:02
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    I'm constantly amazed by non-native English speakers who come here with questions, diction, and command of a language that put most of my "native-speaking" countrymen to shame. As I'm not a lawyer, I had to read these a few times to parse the precise meaning - the negatives do get in the way. I'd further note that "Legalese" is a known offender wanted for the murder of clarity, conspiracy to commit deliberate confusion, and extortion through billable hours. Bon courage @LePressentiment! – mc01 Aug 15 '14 at 16:54
  • Related: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/51324 – J.R. Apr 17 '15 at 9:20
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(Native American English speaker here.)

Below is my thought process as I read the passage. I did not read ahead before writing each bit of explanation below: each description is what I thought, only having read what's quoted so far. This is interpretation by a lay reader; I have no special knowledge of or experience with legal writing.

By the way, as you will see, there are even more than three negations here.


However, it is possible for Acts to create offences

What's coming is an exception to something that came earlier, which probably said that Acts can't create a certain kind of offence.

that do not require any mens rea, or guilty mind, in order for the defendant to be convicted.

OK, now I see. The previous context suggested or implied that Acts (by Parliament, I assume) can't create offences that are defined solely by what someone did, without regard to intent. For example, a person might trespass without intending to, and an Act could make this an offence with a prescribed punishment. (This helps a lot as you're reading abstract material: pause and think of at least one example.)

The word "that" restricts the scope of "Acts".

But it is right for society to be wary about the number of such offences,

"But" indicates an exception to what came before. The word "wary" indicates that this exception is not a rule but a guideline suggesting that defining "such offences" contains a lot of potential for abuse. Society should watch out for a danger that is about to be described. If the law defined too many of these offences, something bad would happen.

so the courts presume that a statute does not impose criminal liability

Presumption means what you assume before you have more information or evidence. Right now, I'm a little confused. "So…" is probably short for "so that the…" But I can't tell yet if we are describing: the good result that will happen if society is sufficiently wary,
or something the courts do in order to keep society sufficiently wary, or maybe something else.

without the need for proof of mens rea

OK, now I think I see. If most offences require evidence of mens rea, then when a statute doesn't explicitly mention the need for such evidence, the courts will interpret the statute as requiring it implicitly. But if the law defines a large number of offences explicitly as not requiring evidence of mens rea, then courts will stop making that presumption, and it will be much easier for people to be convicted of crimes when they had no ill intent.

unless it specifies explicitly that that is what it is doing.

Yup, I correctedly figured out the meaning of the whole sentence before getting to this clause. It wasn't easy, though! Strictly speaking, this final clause is redundant, but it's still helpful because it confirms the reasonable interpretation I arrived at just before I read this clause.


Here's something very important, which contains an important lesson for how to interpret these complex sentences with lots of negations. The word "wary" suggests that a danger is coming: something to be avoided—so it's a kind of negation. However, the clause starting with "so" doesn't describe the danger, it describes the good result of being sufficiently wary. Naturally, though, the "so" clause describes the good result as a negation of the danger, otherwise you'd never know the point of the sentence.

The good result is that courts do not presume that they should convict people for offences without proof of mens rea. The good result includes convicting people for offences without proof of mens rea, but only when statutes explicitly direct the courts to do that. Stated affirmatively, the good result is that courts require proof of mens rea even when the relevant statute doesn't mention mens rea.

The lesson is: you must use common sense to infer what is to be negated and what is not, on the principle (the presumption!) that the author is reasonable. You presume that the sentence makes sense—is logical—and you interpret based on that assumption. This can only be done by considering the subject matter itself. You can't learn rules of symbol-manipulation that replace every term with a meaningless letter and grind out answers according to pristine rules, or you'll introduce nonsense that was not intended and is not a reasonable interpretation.

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These can't be simplified by the use of eliminating double negation, but the number of negatives can be reduced by applying the axiom of contrapositives

To address your first example, "A does not B unless C is true" is equivalent to "A only does B if C is true". To put that in formal logic for you:

Let D be the proposition "A does B", and let E be the proposition "C is true".

"¬D unless E" can clearly be rewritten "Without E, ¬D", or in more logical notation

¬E -> ¬D

By the rule of contrapositives, this is equivalent to

D -> E

Which we can read as "D implies E", or "if D happens then E must be true", or "If A does B then C is true", or "A only does B if C is true".

So to rewrite your first example,

...a statute does not impose criminal liability without the need for proof of mens rea unless it specifies explicitly that that is what it is doing.

becomes

...a statute only imposes criminal liability without the need for proof of mens rea if it specifies explicitly that that is what it is doing.

Here "A" is a statute, "B" is imposes criminal liability without the need for proof of mens rea and "C" is "it specifies explicitly that that is what it is doing".

In general it is quite dangerous to think of English in terms of the rules of formal logic, and it is quite dangerous to think of formal logic in terms of the English language semantics of the terms we use to describe it. If you want to simplify these horrible sentences, a better way would be to read it several times to make sure you fully understand it, and then write down "what it means" without directly referring to the sentence itself. (Then maybe compare the sentences to make sure you have written a sentence with the same meaning).

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    @Nico it is definitely unnecessary, but the question specifically asked "Does the Law of Double Negation, or other rules of logic, help?". Since the asker is already doing little logic exercises in their head to understand English sentence structure, I thought it would be interesting for them to give them my take on that! – jfhc Aug 26 '14 at 14:43
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    @jfhc I'm sorry, after reading my comment again I've noticed it's unintentionally harsh. To answer this question as if it were a logic exercise, I'd suggest using a truth table. – Nico Aug 26 '14 at 17:04
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    @Nico not a bad idea to verify that the sentence has kept its meaning after being rearranged :) – jfhc Aug 27 '14 at 9:34
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    Thanks. Would you please elucidate this sentence: ` it is quite dangerous to think of formal logic in terms of the English language semantics of the terms we use to describe it.? I'm confused by it` and the two uses of terms. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Jul 29 '15 at 16:18
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    @LePressentiment sorry for the confusion. What I meant was that when we talk about formal logic, we use certain English words. But in this case, we are using those English words as placeholders to represent symbols and formulas of formal logic - because it's not very convenient to use formal symbols when talking! But it's dangerous to treat those English (placeholder) words as though they mean the same thing that they would mean if we used them in a different setting. (I.e. it's dangerous to pay attention to the general semantics of words used for this specific purpose). – jfhc Jul 31 '15 at 7:12
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With this answer I'm expanding my comment to jfhc's answer.

The clause of interest from the original text:

a statute does not impose criminal liability without the need for proof of mens rea unless it specifies explicitly that that is what it is doing.

is formally equivalent to:

A does not B unless C

where A is "a statute", B is "impose criminal liability without the need for proof of mens rea" and C is "it specifies explicitly that that is what it is doing"

The form above is logically equivalent to

If A does B, then C

which in this particular case becomes:

If a statute does impose criminal liability without the need for proof of mens rea, then it specifies explicitly that that is what it is doing

or to make it bit more felicitous:

If a statute does impose criminal liability without the need for proof of mens rea, then it must specify explicitly that that is what it is doing

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