Thursday, April 10, 2008

Help Yourself to a Helping Verb


USA Today tells us that 150,000 scrambled after more flights canceled. After more flights canceled what? You can scramble after more flight cancellations, or after more flights are canceled, but you can't scramble after more flights canceled, just as politicians can't say a bill bad. That's an improper headline shortcut.

Some more, from elsewhere:

Dad arrested after
dispute over which
gang right for baby

Comic says studios fear
femme flicks not funny

Watchdog group
says law violated

21 comments:

renita said...

the easiest thing to do: "more canceled flights" ... sadly i see that sort of thing all the time. even more sadly, i've probably written a headline like that.

Greg Burns said...

99.99% of the population (actually, more like 100%, I'll bet) understands it as written...

GB

Bill said...

True enough, but not the point. Everyone would also understand "teh" or "Saterday." We have should have standards higher than simple comprehension.

thomas munro said...

Count me in the "just don't get it" crowd, I'm afraid. Could you explain in some logical way why "Candidate says budget deficit intolerable" is not okay and "Budget deficit intolerable, candidate says" is okay? I'm assuming it's not just some arbitrary rule. I understand the objection that we can call something intolerable but not "say it intolerable," but logically, isn't that still exactly what the "okay" version does?

Bill said...

If you don't get it, you don't get it. But well-edited publications don't say things intolerable.

Girl with the Interesting Hair said...

To those who don't see the error in the sample headlines, it's possible your moment of confusion is so brief as to be undetectable. For others, the pause and re-read take longer and are more disruptive. These examples probably aren't the worst offenders. When you are on the lookout for mistakes -- e.g., when you're reading a blog post that points them out - it's harder to understand how a random reader scanning headlines could misunderstand.

Roli said...

To me, what's funny (in both senses) about the "150,000 scramble" headline is that it implies that all these people are trying to get more flights canceled. "To scramble after something" means to run, stumbling and jostling with others, after some object, e.g., "The players scrambled after the ball." Perhaps if the line break in the headline were different, I wouldn't read it this way, but it should probably have been rewritten entirely.

Roli said...

The best solution to the "scramble after" problem, it now occurs to me, would be to reverse the order of the syntagms and, as renita suggests, turn the atrophied subordinate clause into a prepositional phrase:
After more canceled flights,
150,000 scramble

P.S. said...

Joe Blow arrested
on smut charge
while wife freed

The problem is that your ear (or eye) supplies the implied verb in the first clause but not in the second. Either express the verb or turn the headline into two "sentences" with a semicolon.

Ninja Of The Mundane said...

That headline is a perfect example of the sort of work that ACES reader panelists rip us for each year. As I remember vividly from last year, they make clear that they don't appreciate — or follow — our shortcuts. Just because we think they should know what we're saying doesn't mean we have any idea if they actually do. And such disconnects between headline writers and headline readers are dangerous indeed.

Jim Thomsen
http://jimthomsen.wordpress.com/

Russell said...

Are two-word heds such as

Flights canceled

Misspellings intolerable

unacceptable?

Bill said...

The convention is that you may skip the helping verb only in the main clause. Flights Canceled, but not Sources Say Flights Canceled.

paulo said...

150,000 shrug after pedant griped

Bill said...

Interesting that your dig followed the correct convention. If you love sloppy headlines so much, why not 150,000 shrug after pedant wrong?

Thomas said...

I couldn't pass up suggesting a quick fix for the headline P.S. posted:

Joe Blow arrested
on smut charge
while wife got off

Alex said...

Found today on Google News for a reuters piece

"Obama ex-pastor says he unfairly painted a fanatic"

Poor fanatic.

Of course, when I followed the link, they had fixed (or attempted to fix) the headline: "Obama ex-pastor says was unfairly painted a fanatic"

I love the lack of standards on the Internet.

Stephen Jones said...

We have should have standards higher than simple comprehension.

You're confusing 'higher standards' with your own pet peeves. It's a standard construction in headline writing; get used to it.

Bill said...

Wrong. TWO SHOT is a standard shortcut. TWO SHOT, POLICE SAY is a standard shortcut. POLICE SAY TWO SHOT is not.

Stephen Jones said...

The point about headlines is that there is a trade-off between brevity and intelligibility.

You are quite within your rights as chief copy editor for the Washington Post to make a rule that helping verbs are needed in subordinate clauses. However that rule is unlikely to be kept if it is commonly flouted elsewhere, or does not tie in with the average reader or writer's use of language.

In this case no paper has used the headline 'two shot police say' and it has only been used for one story in the form 'police say two shot'. The same is true for 'police say two killed'

You still haven't explained the reasoning behind your prohibition.

Bill said...

We are talking about newspaper conventions, and I know newspaper conventions better than you do. The New York Times stylebook joins the Post stylebook in prescribing just when you can and can't omit a helping verb.

The Pittsburgh Kid said...

Wow...that was irritating...