Sunday, February 27, 2011

Misusing Malfeasance

I recently read what purported to be an indictment (informally, rather than in the legal sense) of a public-sector employee who the writer was calling to task for what he viewed as a refusal to enforce a law. The specifics of the issue don’t matter to us because we’re here to talk about the English language and abuses to which it is subject. The sentence in question began thus:

This appears to be a blatant malfeasance of justice…
Ah, the overblown sentence! When your opponent resorts to this sort of rhetoric you know that you have him or her on the run. Disregarding the excesses of ire, I was struck by the phrase “malfeasance of justice”.

Now malfeasance exists, both as a word and as a political problem. It simply means unjustifiable conduct or an illegal action perpetrated by a public official. I could argue that the person against whom the charge was leveled was not an “official” but that would be descending into petty semantics. I have much a higher semantic point to make.

“Of justice” in this instance acts as an adjective describing the instance of malfeasance. Yet “of” in this case means that justice was being…malfeased? No such word exists because the word being modified is a noun, not a verb. It’s tantamount to saying the actions were an apple of justice.

You can commit malfeasance, certainly (though I wouldn’t recommend it). You can witness it, call it out, and publicize it. You can even say that it runs rampant. But the fact that I can replace the word with a pronoun in that last two sentences means that it is still a noun.

Nowhere on-line or on paper could I find any indication that malfeasance can act as a verb. So what do you suppose our erstwhile agitator intended to convey? One presumes that the writer wanted to point out that the act was perceived to be malfeasance (and blatant misconduct at that) and that justice was being perverted thereby.

As to whether the author’s somewhat hysterical style swayed those with whom he was communicating, I can’t really say. I didn’t read the rest of the communiqué as I was too busy running for the dictionary.




Awsome post !! What blog platform do you use on your site ?