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In following, a writer quotes and summarizes Bill Read's remarks regarding Hurricane Irene:

“This is not just a coastal event,” said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center. He said he was highly confident of the storm’s track, meaning that it would be a rare hurricane that travels right along the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor.

There are two parts to this. One, I expected an idiom along the lines of 'It would be a rare hurricane that didn't have an eye'. But here, the writer disappoints me by seeming to start the "it would be a rare X that Y" idiom that means "it would be an unusual X that Y, so not Y", but not finishing it. (Instead, Mr. Read meant that, quite unusually, Irene would travel along the I95 corridor.)

So the question is, is this something an editor should advise be changed? Or is it a pleasant ambiguity, easily resolved?

Another, more humorous example (from SNL?) of ambiguity: "You can't put too much water on a nuclear reactor".

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Bobbi, to what idiom are your referring? It would be a rare X that Y. seems to be the formula here, where the intent is that X is unlikely to be/do Y. Are you expecting Y to be expressed as negative? –  JeffSahol Aug 27 '11 at 16:19
    
Yes, that is the idiom, 'it would be a rare X that Y'. So the problem with Mr Read's statement is, it was indeed true that Y. I would fix it to '..meaning that it would travel right along ... I95, which hurricane's rarely do.' –  Bobbi Bennett Aug 27 '11 at 16:56
    
Some more context: Federal officials warned that whatever the force of the winds, this storm was powerful and its effects would be felt well inland, as far as West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, western New York and interior New England. “This is not just a coastal event,” said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center. He said he was highly confident of the storm’s track, meaning that it would be a rare hurricane that travels right along the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor. –  JeffSahol Aug 27 '11 at 17:59
    
I am not clear what you don't understand in the sentence. –  kiamlaluno Aug 28 '11 at 18:20

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I see what Bobbi means now, and agree that the phrasing is awkward because it is so close the the expression "it's a rare X that Y". The statement in context is saying that Irene (not a hypothetical hurricane as implied by the subjunctive) is one of those rare hurricanes. It would be better expressed as:

He said he was highly confident of the storm’s track, saying that it will be one of those rare hurricanes that travels right along the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor.

"meaning that" also contributed to the confusion, since the fact that it would track down the corridor is not something the writer could have inferred from "He said he was highly confident of the storm’s track", but rather confirming what had been said elsewhere in their conversation.

It's a rare wire reporter who can get it right every time, in my experience. I used to work for the Associated Press (on the tech side) and loved to bother the reporters with corrections.

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Or one could merely alter the punctuation a bit, and add a pronoun, like this: "...meaning that it would be a rare hurricane, one that travels...." I'd guess it's as likely this got mangled by a day-dreaming copy-editor as by the reporter himself. –  Kyle Pearson Aug 28 '11 at 4:02

There's a problem with the way you have provided the sentence in question: "He said he was highly confident of the storm's track, meaning it would be...."

The subjunctive "would" is here being used to describe what the speaker's intended meaning was, but we haven't got the actual context of the phrase to compare against what that meaning might actually be. Presuming this is what the speaker actually intended (and not, instead, that Mr. Read is disguising false logic with tricky prose), then there's nothing wrong about it. As for the idiom, you should take it as "It would be a rare [thing] that...."

As an example, consider if, for instance, these sentences were preceded by "[The scientist] stated that the Interstate 95 corridor was flanked on two sides by high mountains, which would cause the hurricane to lose much of its strength and be deflected out to sea. He said he was highly confident of the storm's track, meaning...."

In such a context, no -- the usage stands, and isn't all that idiomatic at all, so far as I can see. It's just standard syntax using a singular instance as a hyperbolic example, something rhetorically complex, but without any non-standard or dialectical oddity that I can see.

However, there is the possibility that it's misapplied, here, and without the preceding prose it's hard to say if it is or isn't. As given, and presuming that "meaning...." really is what the person quoted actually meant, in a context similar to that suggested above, then it's accurate.

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That the statement requires context to be clear tells me it does not clarify anything. He could have said 'this hurricane would be one of the rare ones, that actually do travel down the populated I95 corridor', and avoided the idiom. –  Bobbi Bennett Aug 27 '11 at 17:05
    
No; the contextual problem has nothing whatsoever to do with the phrase "It is a rare hurricane, that..." The contextual problem comes with the word "meaning", which segues from the first phrase to the second. It is impossible to tell from the information you provided whether or not the phrase truly represents Mr. Read's meaning. J Sahol's clarification, however, makes it clear that the reporter (not Mr. Read) misused the formula. The most succinct and accurate formulation would be "Making it clear that this is one of those rare hurricanes...." –  Kyle Pearson Aug 28 '11 at 3:59

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