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When not to use alliteration: ‘pool of potential perpetrators’

Alliteration is a wonderful rhetorical tool, and one particularly suited to the English language—to the point it has been described as ‘the root of English poetry.’ A Gopnik, ‘The Rules of Rhyme’, The New Yorker (23 May 2022) It is a devilishly delightful device, which I regularly, with relish, use in my own writing. Yet, like any rhetorical tool, there are times when alliteration is inappropriate.

One clear example is the phrase in family law, the ‘pool of possible perpetrators’ or in elided form, ‘pool of perpetrators’. The triple alliterative alternate form ‘pool of potential perpetrators’ also occurs; see, eg, [2022] EWCA Civ 1348, para 17, per King LJ This phrase, which has been standard ever since it was endorsed (after use in the lower courts) by the Baroness Hale of Richmond JSC (as her Ladyship then was) in S-B (Children), [2010] 1 AC 678, para 40 refers to the population which may bear responsibility for child abuse, even when a specific list of potential abusers cannot be made. It is thus an exceptionally serious legal concept.

Consequently, the triple alliterative form is precisely the wrong name for this concept, because alliteration is today more generally associated with pathos or humour (especially now that its use in remembering long oral epics is essentially moribund). The ‘p’ sound in staccato bursts brings to mind either a Marvel style alliterative hero (Peter Parker) or a Wodehousian/Cowardian witty epigram. It does not help that ‘pool’ has many recreational meanings, from a bar game to a place of aquatic amusement.

What term, then, should be an alternate? The field of law is sometimes referred to as ‘uncertain perpetrators’, which works fine at eliminating the double alliterative. The ‘pool of uncertain abusers’ or the ‘potentially abusive group’ eliminate the triple handily.