Blog Post

Unclear phrases detract from the main message

I heard a radio news item yesterday morning reporting that a UK-based politician is ‘hoping for re-election a second time’.

It got me wondering about the journalist’s meaning. Did she really mean what she had said, or was it a little slip?

It’s a common enough phrase – ‘re-elected for a second time’ – but it’s also confusing. In saying ‘second time’ rather than ‘second term’, the journalist left me unsure.

If a politician is re-elected, then clearly they’ve been elected before and this is either the second or subsequent election. Adding ‘for a second term’ seems a little redundant, but does at least clarify that this will be the first re-election and the politician is hoping for a second term.

But to say ‘re-elected for a second time’ suggests that a possible third term is ahead. The politician was elected once, was then re-elected, and is now hoping to be re-elected for a second time.

It’s quite possible that the journalist wanted me to understand this as a news item about a potential third term. But I have a suspicion that it wasn’t. The mistake is so common that it’s my default expectation.

The real problem here is that my attention shifted. Instead of listening to the substance of the news item, I got caught up wondering about the meaning of the journalist’s statement and looking for clues about which meaning might be correct. It’s an example of a comment that would be better avoided because the meaning is unclear and listeners end up side-tracked. I have no idea what the news item was actually about.