There aren’t many sure bets in electoral politics, but you can’t go wrong when you vote for … grammar. Fortunately, this week’s primary election is all about language.
Two of the topics that have solidly dominated the mayoral and City Council races — the soda tax and safe injection sites — have pivoted on differences of language. And with the first ballot question, voters will even have an opportunity to vote directly on a noun choice in the city’s charter.
Who said elections are dull?
For starters, the extra tax that you pay when you buy a Coke, and that funds pre-K and Rebuild, gets labeled differently depending on whether you support it.
In the one televised mayoral debate, moderator Jim Rosenfield asked about the “sugary-beverage tax,” but challengers Alan Butkovitz and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams both referred to it as the “soda tax” to remind voters where they’re paying it. Mayor Jim Kenney and his administration, meanwhile, reliably stick to hashtags to refer to the “#PhillyBevTax.” This places the emphasis on Philly, which sees the benefits of pre-K and Rebuild, while minimizing the beverage part — a more clinical, more detached, less specific word than soda. Although the mayor’s nomenclature is less concise, he gets extra points for being more precise, since the tax covers sugar-sweetened energy drinks, iced teas (Et tu, Turkey Hill?), and the like.
On the topic of safe injection sites, Williams and Butkovitz tried to use punctuation to score points. In the debate, Butkovitz referred to safe injection sites as “an oxymoron,” while Williams said, “I’m not sure how you safely inject.” But just running for mayor doesn’t give you free grammatical license. Both candidates read safe injection as a compound adjective modifying sites. But that’s wrong; compound adjectives need hyphens, which would make it, under Williams’ and Butkovitz’s readings, safe-injection sites. The term’s accurate punctuation eliminates that hyphen because safe is a standard adjective modifying the compound noun injection sites. And needless hyphens are no way to run a city.
On the other hand, both Kenney and Safehouse, the nonprofit aiming to open such a site, prefer the term overdose prevention site, as the mayor said in the debate. They too are keenly aware of how much language matters. Safehouse’s FAQ document trumpets the American Medical Association finding that, “Studies from other countries have shown that [overdose prevention services] reduce the number of overdose deaths, reduce transmission rates of infectious disease, and increase the number of individuals initiating treatment for substance use disorders without increasing drug trafficking or crime in the areas where the facilities are located.” But note that Safehouse puts overdose prevention services in brackets, since it’s not a direct quote from the AMA. The original AMA press release instead refers to supervised injection facilities, which is also the phrasing used at The Inquirer.
Further down the ballot, voters will weigh in on whether to remove the words councilman and councilmanic from the city’s charter, and replace them with gender-neutral terms. Letting the populace vote on anything language-related is a generally terrible idea, but in the interest of scrubbing an archaic gender norm from our primary governing document, we’ll support this one. But even on an issue as noncontroversial as this one, we still have problems: The resolution that introduced this ballot question painstakingly removed all references to councilman, councilmen, and councilmanic, but it missed a crucial pronoun: “A councilmember ... shall have been a resident of the City for at least one year prior to his election” (emphasis added).
Not on the ballot: whether this is an appropriate example of the word irony. (It is.)