March 31, 2002

How’s That Again?

According to an NPR obituary, retired CNN executive Ed Turner (no relation to Ted Turner) "tried to launch two unsuccessful cable news channels" after leaving CNN. NPR likely got this wrong. Mr. Turner no doubt intended to launch successful channels, but he failed to do so. The original sentence is not easily fixed. "He tried unsuccessfully to launch two cable news channels" is technically ambiguous. "He tried, unsuccessfully, to launch two cable news channels" clarifies Mr. Turner's intentions, though, in a brief news item, the distinction between this sentence and the previous one might be missed. I suspect that the cable news channel launches were consecutive, rather than parallel efforts, which is made clear by none of the sentences considered so far. "He was unceccessful in two attempts to launch cable news channels" probably comes closest to what was actually intended.

The faulty sentence heard on the radio supports linguistic theories that assert that we construct meaning in our minds before we map that meaning to a particular sequence of words. Errors in that final mapping process sometimes yield sentences that we understand perfectly, even though modifiers are misplaced or a suffix that belongs on one word is mistakenly placed on another.

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