WP7.3 Was Something Lost in Translation? 

Part I

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet
04/01/13

It is not an exaggeration to say that WP 7.3, the so-called “Advantage Rule”, is one of the most debated rules in water polo. It also seems to be one of the most maligned as well, having been blamed for just about everything that ails the sport. From the loss of the driving game to the wrestling at center, from the sport’s low mainstream popularity to the lack of television coverage, whenever something feels wrong, or someone feels wronged in water polo, WP 7.3 is sure to be mentioned.

On the face of it this seems rather odd, since water polo is not alone in having such a rule. Mainstream sports such as: soccer, basketball, team handball, hockey and lacrosse, all have comparable rules that provide for – even mandate – the continuation of play when a minor infraction is committed. In soccer this is called the “play-on” or “playing advantage” rule that has been on the books since 1948. In lacrosse it is the “slow whistle” while in the NFL, NBA and hockey it is the delayed penalty. The rules’ intent is always the same: allow play to continue while there’s an opportunity to do so, irrespective of minor infractions, or even minor injuries (FIFA Law 5), and withhold the whistle until the ball is out of play.

If the intent of WP 7.3 is essentially the same, why is it perceived to have a detrimental effect on the game? The language of WP 7.3 seems clear enough:

WP 7.3 The referees shall refrain from declaring a foul if, in their opinion, such declaration would be an advantage to the offending player’s team. The referees shall not declare an ordinary foul when there is still a possibility to play the ball.

Most readers would probably interpret the verb shall in both sentences as a strict imperative: never declare a foul if it is to the advantage the offender, and never declare an ordinary foul if the ball is still playable. This view seems to be further supported by the note:

[Note. The referees shall apply this principle to the fullest extent. They should not, for example, declare an ordinary foul in favor of a player who is in possession of the ball and making progress towards his opponents’ goal, because this is considered to give an advantage to the offender’s team.]

After reading the two paragraphs above, one can see why referees are instructed to withhold a call despite an evident defensive foul. But then why is “Advantage” also invoked as the justification for the no-call, when irate defensive coaches protest what they consider an evident offensive foul? Surely both situations can’t be right.

Herein lays the first problem: interpreting the first two sentences as strict, inviolable commands is incorrect. Grammatically neither sentence is an imperative, in fact they are both mixed subjunctives, which means the action following shall is not something that must always happen; rather it is something that may or may not happen under specific circumstances. Let’s now see why.
 

 “The referees shall refrain from declaring a foul if, in their opinion, such declaration would be an advantage to the offending player’s team.

The sentence above consists of a type I conditional clause (protasis): “if… such a declaration would be an advantage to the offending player’s team”, and a consequence clause (apodosis): “the referees shall refrain from declaring a foul”. Shall in this sentence is not an imperative but a simple future, indicating that both the condition and the prescribed consequence will surely occur at some indefinite future time. However, because the rule makers placed the consequence before the condition, most readers would assume that shall is an imperative.

The modal complement “in their opinion” does not modify the main clause; instead it modifies the dependent (if) clause. By adding it the rule makers further weakened the applicability of the directive, since it is now subject to not one but two unrelated conditions. The conditions change the mood of the main clause into an implicit optative (optional) mood, thus making the original directive (not declaring a foul) always discretionary. The directive “referees shall refrain” is in fact nullified.

Perhaps this is why WP 7.3 is subject to so much debate: people instinctively sense and question something that just doesn’t “sound right”. So how could the first sentence have been written, in order to avoid any confusion? Well, that depends entirely on the rule makers’ intent. If they had intended to make WP 7.3 a mandatory rule, they should have used shall along with a complement to define not whether but when it is to be applied:

The referees shall refrain from declaring a foul when such declaration would be an advantage to the offending player’s team.

The use of when is mandatory, in the absolute certainty that the circumstance will occur at some unspecified future time. Notice that the absence of the modal complement “in their opinion” does not change the meaning or the applicability of the directive.

If instead the rule makers had intended to maintain the obligativity of the consequence (not declaring a foul) but wanted to allow referees to decide when to apply it, the following wording is more appropriate:

The referees must refrain from declaring a foul when, in their opinion, such declaration would be an advantage to the offending player’s team.

It is necessary to use the circumstantial “in their opinion” in this case, to further clarify that the applicability of the prescribed action is subject to the referee’s judgment.

If the choices of whether and when to apply the rule were completely discretionary, then the correct verbs to use are should or ought to:

The referees should / ought to refrain from declaring a foul if, in their opinion, such declaration would be an advantage to the offending player’s team.

Assuming for the moment that the rule makers’ intent was indeed to make WP 7.3 a mandatory rule, we can now rewrite it to avoid any ambiguity (and correct the remaining grammatical errors):

Referees shall refrain from declaring a foul when such declaration would be an advantage for the offending player’s team. Referees shall not declare an ordinary foul while there still is a possibility to play the ball.

Let’s now examine the second paragraph:

[Note. The referees shall apply this principle to the fullest extent. They should not, for example, declare an ordinary foul in favor of a player who is in possession of the ball and making progress towards his opponents’ goal, because this is considered to give an advantage to the offender’s team.]

The first sentence is a strict imperative, which means the prescribed action (“apply this principle to the fullest extent”) must always be performed. The sentence stands on its own and is not dependent on any clauses put forth in the first paragraph. The second sentence however, although grammatically correct, contains a logical error. The rule makers used should, which is appropriate in the presence of the conditional “because this is considered to give an advantage to the offender’s team”, but puts it at odds with the directive set forth in the previous three sentences. Had the conditional not been present shall could have been used, thus preserving the rule’s (presumptive) intent.

At this point one would probably ask: what is this all about? Surely the rule makers know how to write in proper English, and they would have paid considerable attention to the most important rule in water polo, no? Well, not necessarily.

On Page 1 of the FINA rules, directly below the title there is a note which states: “Original text edited for American English”. This suggests the possibility that the original text may not have been written in English at all. Considering that FINA has two official languages, namely: English and French, and that FINA’s offices are located in Lausanne, which is in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, it stands to reason that French is not only one of the official FINA languages, but likely also the language in which most FINA business is conducted. From there one can reasonably conclude that is possible one of the original versions of the rules may have been written in French. Let’s now take a look at the French text, along with the literal English translation:

Les arbitres doivent s'abstenir de sanctionner une faute si, selon leur opinion, une telle sanction entraînerait un avantage pour l'équipe du joueur fautif. Les arbitres ne doivent pas sanctionner une faute ordinaire lorsqu'il y a encore une possibilité de jouer le ballon.

The referees ought to abstain from sanctioning a fault if, in their opinion, such a sanction entertains an advantage for the team of the culpable player. The referees should not sanction an ordinary fault when there is still a possibility to play the ball.

[Note : Les arbitres doivent appliquer ce principe dans toutes ses conséquences. Ils ne doivent pas, par exemple, déclarer une faute en faveur d'un joueur qui est en possession du ballon et qui progresse vers le but de l'adversaire; cela est considéré comme donner un avantage à l'équipe fautive.]

[[Note: The referees shall apply this principle through all its consequences. They shall not, for example, declare a fault in favor of a player who is in possession of the ball and who  progresses towards the adversary’s goal; that is considered as giving an advantage to the culpable team.]

In the first sentence of WP 7.3 above, the verb doivent (inf. doiver) appears in the same sentence with the conditional clause “si” (if), just like in the English text. However, unlike English which only has an implicit (contextual) optative, French has a morphological or explicit conditional–optative. The verb doivent can take on a number of different meanings, each expressing a different degree of obligativity for the action that follows. They range from the strict imperative shall, to must, to should and finally to the entirely discretionary ought to, depending on whether, and which complementary clause is employed. In our case, the if clause employed modifies the mood of doivent from imperative to optative, and the whole sentence becomes an explicit conditional-optative mood. As a result, doivent takes on the meaning of ought to, and the prescribed action, namely: to refrain from declaring a fault (foul) becomes entirely optional, at the discretion of the referees. In the second sentence doivent appears along the temporal indefinite “lorsqu'il y a encore une possibilité…” which again makes the sentence a conditional-optative.

The first sentence of the note is identical to the English version and needs no further discussion. In the second sentence however, doivent takes on the strict imperative meaning of shall (as opposed to should in the English version) because the conditional clause is eliminated and replaced by an indicative clause.

It is apparent that the logical differences in the French and English versions of WP 7.3 are substantial, to the point that the intent of the two rules seems almost diametrically opposite. In the French version the referees are given complete discretion over their initial action, but subsequently they are directed to “stay the course”, while the English version first commands the referees to a specific course of action but then practically nullifies the command. While it is impossible to tell which of these two versions is closer to the rule makers’ original thinking, it is this author’s view that that the French version more closely reflects the true intent of the “Advantage Principle”. However, any such conclusion would not be complete without examining the wording of WP 7.3 in other languages as well, which is the subject of part II of this article.