One of life’s great mysteries is the offside law in football. It causes a lot of discussion and controversy among football fans and commentators, as well as among players and managers. A comment on a recent controversial decision about offside made me look at the wording of the offside law. I discovered a surprising (and, perhaps, unhelpful) structural ambiguity in part of the law.
The offside law is Law 11, written in 4 sections. Section 1 specifies when a player is in an offside position.
Section 2 spells out when a player in an offside position. This section stipulates that the offside Law penalises a player in an offside position only if the player becomes ‘involved in active play’ by one of 6 actions listed in that section. One of those 6 actions is:
preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision [emphasis added by me]IFAB Laws of the game 2022-23 https://www.thefa.com/football-rules-governance/lawsandrules/laws/football-11-11/law-11—offside (accessed 20 April 2023
Section 3 specifies some cases that do not involve and offence and section 4 says what penalties apply to offences.
I have both a substantive comment and a drafting comment on the wording quoted from Section2.
I became aware of this wording from a blogpost by the legal commentary David Allen Green https://lawandlore.substack.com/p/the-law-and-lore-of-the-offside-offence
He argues there that:
- clearly is a ‘single, awful word which has no place in any formal rules or laws, either of association or of anything else’.
- any formal law should ‘provide a precise rule capable of being applied to relevant facts so as to create a binary situation: the rule either applies or it does not apply, and if it applies, it has either been infringed or it has not been.’
- ‘it is not clear (ahem) what the “c” word adds to the rule, and it seems to make the rule less precise’.
Although I agree with part of Green’s comment, I disagree with the main part of it. He seems to be aiming for certainty and to remove subjective assessments. In this case I think it is obvious what the “c” word is trying to achieve. This part of the offside law aims to penalise (among other things) players whose offside position obstructs an opponent’s vision so much that the opponent is at a (non-trivial) disadvantage. It will always—rightly—be a subjective decision whether an opponent was, in fact, at a disadvantage.
Indeed, a mis-guided attempt to eliminate subjective assessments from other aspects of the offside Law has brought the system of video assistant referees (VAR) into great disrepute over the last 2 or 3 years. VAR judged many players to be offside when some part of their leg or foot was in front of defender by only a few millimetres. Footballs fans are likely to be equally upset if a mechanistic approach judges players to be ‘involved in active play’ when they obstruct an opponent’s vision only marginally.
I do, though, agree with part of Green’s complaint. The Law-makers want the referee (and other match officials) to make an assessment that is unavoidably subjective. I agree that using the word clear is probably not the clearest (as Green would say, ‘ahem’) way to explain that the assessment is partly subjective.
Now, this blog is about language, not about law-making, nor about football and the intricacies of the offside Law. So, let me turn to the reason I wrote this post. The string of words ‘clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision’ is itself unclear. That is because it may not be clear what the adverb clearly is meant to be modifying:
- the whole sentence? [clearly [the player is obstructing the opponent’s line of vision]]
- only part of the sentence? [the player is [clearly obstructing] [the opponent’s line of vision]]
In the quoted extract from Law 11, clearly is obviously intended to modify the whole sentence, to convey a meaning something like the following: ‘It is clear [obvious, evident] to the referee that the player obstructed an opponent’s line of vision’.
But placing clearly immediately before obstructing could make it seem that clearly is intended to modify only obstructing [the line of vision], not to modify the whole sentence. The phrase could perhaps be read as trying to say placing a clear [transparent] obstruction in the opponent’s line of vision.
Of course, that seems like a contradiction. If the obstruction is transparent, it isn’t an obstruction.
Risk of confusion
Fortunately, in this particular case, there is not much risk of confusion. With the intended reading as a sentence adverb, clearly has the sense of ‘evidently’ or ‘obviously’. On the other hand, for the reading as modifying only ‘obstructing the line of vision’, clearly would need to have its other sense of ‘transparently’.
But the example does illustrate an important drafting point. If you put an adverb in a sentence, please make sure the reader can tell whether the adverb modifies the whole sentence, or only part of it.