Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Wait, Who's Abusing the Dog Paths?

I'm sure the New York Times improved this Page One headline for subsequent editions, but on my early peek I saw this:

Abuses Dog Paths of Young Magazine 'Crews' 

In addition to its being, finally, one iffy headline that I won't get yelled at about, it illustrates one of the many problems we face as headline writers: the possibility that nouns will be read as verbs and vice versa. It took me about half a dozen readings before I realized that Abuses was not a subjectless verb but rather a plural noun, making Dog not a noun or a noun adjunct describing Paths but rather a verb. Nobody's abusing any dog paths, but abuses are dogging these crews' paths.

The plausibility of "dog paths" as something that could indeed exist and be written about compounds the "noun or verb?" problem, and even if you get a glimmer of the story's real subject, noun dogs could still conceivably be involved (as a colleague of mine said, "At least it isn't what I feared -- a story about how these salespeople are often attacked by dogs").

The headline isn't helped by the quotation marks, justified as they may be, on "Crews," or by the fleeting appearance that we're talking about a young magazine, not young people making up these "crews." Too many distractions.

I've certainly looked the other way at one or two of these issues when I couldn't think of a better alternative, but a headline can survive only so many potential distractions. (And the Times is consistently excellent at avoiding such problems, which is why this example stood out for me.)

14 comments:

mlivingston said...

The classic example of this problem (perhaps apocryphal) is "Volunteers Needed to Help Rape Victims."

Cate said...

This is a case where grammatical issues truly obscure meaning. I honestly started out thinking it was a case of abuses of or on a dog path. By the time I got to the magazine crews, I was completely buffaloed. (As an aside, the headline was about as easy to parse as the famous "Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.") Even after making my way, with your help, through the fact that the dog wasn't canine, I couldn't tell what kind of magazine crew it was. And what those single quotes were doing there (crews' what?). I'll be curious to see if they change it.

mlivingston said...

I'm impressed with all those buffalo, but I'll see that and raise you two. Consider a garden supply store owned by the Plant family (I am not making this up, though it no longer exists) called Plant's Plants. The staff offers to help you with the merchandise: Plant's Plants plants Plant's Plants' plants.

Bill said...

And then there's Major Major Major Major.

DOV said...

Bill, you get yelled at?!?

Maggie at MU said...

good to know that I'm not the only one to cringe, look twice, read three times and then say hmmm... when I saw this head. I'm using this one in my copoy editing students as a "teaching moment."

Karen said...

I once saw "Ethics charges dog spy." I got off on the wrong part-of-speech foot -- thinking "Ethics" was shorthand for an ethics commission -- and proceeded to read it as noun-verb-adjective-noun. I was left with many questions. What's a dog spy? And what was he charged with?

Bill said...

What's a dog spy? Obviously you're not familiar with the great Teddy Salad.

Peter Fisk said...

I assumed it was a reference to "Fang":

http://www.sitcomsonline.com/photopost/data/759/14549getsmart22.jpg

spanklyfreaking said...

Curious about the dog-as-verb problem, I went poking around and found these shining examples:

Duck dilemma dogs development (Sounds like four nouns.)

Crank calls dog island's president (A crank telephoned the president of dog island?)

Insurance issues dog Curry (An insurance company is distributing big steaming bowls of dog curry?)

Peter Fisk said...

Nice!

That's right up there with searching Google News for "pubic education" every once in a while.

isles16 said...

"I've... gotta go walkies again."

Jo-Anne said...

Whitehorse recently hosted the Canada Winter Games and many photographs were captioned with Vanier School, Shooting.
Even with the comma, I think that caption is problematic.

LL said...

The Des Moines Register once used "Town comes together to help widow man, kids." Seemed pretty cruel on first glance.