“Now I live in the company of a few disobedient words.”

Karl Krolow

The University of Richmond’s Writing Center affirms the ethical liabilities of writing on its home page.[1] Its writing faculty suggests writers focus not only on avoiding plagiarism by properly citing sources, but also with language usage and the avoidance of offensive linguistic tendencies. For example, they advise writers to avoid the unintentional use of racially charged, sexist, and offensive language. This comes about, they say, without conscious recognition.

If so, it necessarily follows that when we are conscious and recognize that what we write is racially charged, sexist, or offensive there is no liability. The conundrum arises by way of the careless use of the word “liabilities.” There are two recognized  liabilities in American law: liability without fault and strict liability. Lawyers are taught to consciously recognize the difference. If the act is one the writer ought, in the exercise of reasonable care, to have anticipated, foreseen, or was likely to result in injury to others, then the writer is liable for injury proximately caused that results as a consequence of the words used. Legally, writers must conduct their writing such that it does not unnecessarily or unfairly injure. These are civil liabilities, for the most part.

Lest I leave one nit unpicked, I’ll close with this. Liable has three syllables, not two, and is pronounced differently from libel. q.v.[2]

[1] http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/english/ethics.html

[2] A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, Bryan Garner, p. 340, Oxford University Press, 1987, New York.