The power of yes: why the wording of Britain’s EU referendum matters

 

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Have you ever thought about the power of language in a referendum? The way the questions are phrased? Read the article below and find out how subtle changes in the wording of the questions may have the power to influence public opinion, and ultimately, affect the final result in a referendum. 

The activity below will give you a chance to practice processing English texts. As you are reading the text, try to predict  (guess) the missing verbs even before you finish reading the sentence. The first letters are given. You will find the answer key along with some key expressions (highlighted in red) explained right after the text. Good luck!

 

The question should be easy to understand, unambiguous and to the point. But subtly altering what’s asked could skew the response. Don’t you agree?

Along with when it will take place and who will be permitted to vote, one of the factors most likely to (1) i………………………….. the outcome of the EU membership referendum confirmed in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday is: what question will it ask? Getting the question right in a referendum is important not just because it is far easier to (2) c………………………………….. for a yes than for a no. It also matters because how a question is worded can sometimes (3) a……………………………………….. the response to it.

Most experts agree that referendum questions must be easy to understand, unambiguous and to the point. Asking, as the Scottish devolution question did in 1979, “Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be (6) p…………………………….. into effect?” was maybe not ideal. Nor was the legalistic, jargon-filled 54-word question that the citizens of Quebec were asked to (7) v…………………………………….. on in the second of their independence referendums in 1995. (Like the previous plebiscite in 1980, that one failed, despite including the word “agree” in its proposition.)

For Britain’s in/out EU referendum, due before the end of 2017, the Electoral Commission has already given a hint of the kind of question it would like to see. A private member’s bill (8) i……………………………………………. last year by the Eurosceptic MP James Wharton included the question: “Do you think the UK should be a member of the European Union?”

The electoral watchdog tested this, found some people didn’t know Britain was already in the EU, and reckoned it might (9) c………………………………………. them. It suggested: “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union?”, which was “clear and straightforward”, but still contained “a degree of perceived bias” because it would allow the “in” camp to campaign for a yes. The alternative, “most neutral wording” was: “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” (with “Remain” and “Leave” as the two options on the ballot paper). According to a BBC report on Wednesday, the government (10) f……………………………………….. the first option – an indication, perhaps, of its preferred outcome.

You may read the full article here.

Answer key 1 – Missing verbs

(1) influence       (2) campaign              (3) affect             (4) produce      (5) stand

(6) put                  (7) vote                         (8) introduced    (9) confuse   (10) favours

Answer key 2 – Words explained

unambiguous: completely clear

to skew: to cause something to be not exact / to distort

to trigger: (here) to cause

biased: having a partial, one-sided like or dislike based on personal beliefs and opinions rather than facts

devolution: granting of powers from the central government of a sovereign state to the government at regional, local level

plebiscite: referendum

watchdog: an organisation that works to ensure that companies/public institutions act in a legal and ethical way

ballot paper: a sheet of paper used for voting in elections (with the names of the candidates)

Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA at www.thegardian.com



 

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