Monday, August 23, 2010

Semantics: Is That What You Meant to Say?


Even CNN reporters have occasional trouble with semantics. That means that, like all of us, journalists sometimes mean to say one thing, but end up saying something different. Over on Twitter, I noticed the following exchange about a CNN article about singledom:

@hangingnoodles: 46% of households maintained by a single person.
@EditorMark: That's one busy homemaker.

Get it? If not, you're missing out on yet another chortle-fest among word hounds. @hangingnoodles and @EditorMark picked up on a problem with the semantics in the following passage:

About 46 percent of all households nationwide are maintained by a single person. That adds up to 52 million singles.
Where does CNN go wrong? The reporter doesn't mean that one person maintains 46 percent of all American households, but that's what she actually says here.

To fix this, the sentence needs to be reworked. There are many ways to do it.

Correction:
  • Single people head up 46 percent of American households.
  • In 46 percent of American households, a single person is the head of the house.

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