Friday, May 08, 2009

Third's not always a charm

News stories about simple homicide and acts of violence typically don't interest me. Maybe if the story looks culturally significant. Or if there's a dash of cannibalism in there. But throw a little ambiguity into a headline or lede and I'll sink my teeth into it.

Ambiguity is always tasty. When I saw the following headline one meaning pushed it's way to the front:

Drew Peterson indicted in 3rd wife's death

The easiest reading for me is that he was married three times and he killed his third wife, not the first two. But other readings are possible. Even if unlikely.

To interpret the phrase we have to assign a quality that the ordering term refers to. In the headline above, we have very little information for 3rd to refer to.

David Beaver has recently written a post on a similar ambiguity with the phrase first American. There he suggests the simple reading:
In general, "the first X" means "the example of an X that was first to achieve Y". In simple cases, Y is just reaching a state in which the description X is appropriate.

So the 3rd wife is the example of a wife that was the 3rd to achieve 'being his wife.' And that's how I come to my first interpretation.

To get other interpretations we open up the scope of the ordering. In this case, every different answer to 3rd to do/be/experience what? gives us another understanding. And as Beaver suggests, the possibilities are endless. In a sentence like he killed his third victim we assume that the first two victims were also killed, even tho the sentence doesn't require that reading. He could have maimed the first two. Victims don't always die. But we make a short jump, giving third N the meaning of an individual who was the third to have received the action of the deed we are claiming he committed. This is the same jump that would lead us to read the headline as if this was his 3rd wife to die.

It's also possible to interpret 3rd wife as the third person to be a wife, not necessarily Peterson's wife. An absolute scope of ordering would require that we find the 3rd human being to ever be a wife. This isn't likely. I don't think Peterson was indicted of killing the mother of Irad.

But it would be reasonable to assign thirdness to a list of wives that Peterson has been indicted for killing. This could even survive the inclusion of a possessive pronoun, his, if we understand it the same way one might say I saw my third Sasquatch last week. I don't have any Sasquatches. The possessive is more about the sighting than the object of the sighting. If Peterson is indicted for killing his third wife, it could be his third indictment, but not wife.

There's also the possibility that three wives have died, but only the third one that looks like his work. The scope of ordering could be absolute—only three wives ever have died—or more likely, relative. The story would then probably tell us what the 3 deaths had in common that justifies a grouping.

We've been focusing on the structure, [[3rd wife]'s death]. And I could go on and on, trying to tackle [3rd [wife's death]] as another possible, and rather awkward, structure.

But after having just finished a season of Dexter earlier tonight, I think I could stand to cleanse my palate of the macabre. Leno's on. That doesn't help.

1 comment:

  1. Reminds me of Emily's "My life closed twice before it closed..."


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