Monday, September 25, 2006

Depends on How Important 'Is' Is

Headlines, like all specialized forms of language, have their own rules, customs, assumptions and expectations. One of these is the customary dropping of some helping verbs. So, in a headline like this . . .

2 Killed at Football Game

. . . someone used to reading newspapers assumes that two people were killed, as opposed to two people doing some killing. Shake things up a little, however, and that understanding gets muddled.

Security Fears Rise After 2 Killed at Football Game

Does that sound odd to you? It sure does to me. The articulation of the rule (if you can call it that) is sparse, but the Washington Post stylebook explains:
Auxiliary verbs and forms of the verb to be may usually be omitted, but they are required in the progressive and after says.
Says usually is the culprit when a helping-verb omission goes wrong -- this strikes me as just as bad as the last example:

Police Say 2 Killed at Football Game

Somehow the implied were or are is clear in the first example, but I find myself asking "Two killed whom?" when I read the second and third, in which the "are" (or "were") seems much more nakedly missing. Why? I'm not sure. I guess the convention goes only so far.

Is all this hopelessly arcane? Am I elevating a custom, a nicety, to the level of a must-be-remedied ambiguity? I don't think so, but I'm curious to hear how widely observed this distinction is. In my experience, it's one of those "If you don't get it, you don't get it" concepts, something difficult to teach even to some experienced and excellent headline writers. Sometimes I explain the idea and an associate responds by using the helping verb whenever it's possible to use a helping verb -- the problem is solved, even if the point is missed.


Girl with the Interesting Hair said...

This is just the sort of arcana I love to dissect. Question -- in the Post's rule about using the helping verb, what does "the progressive" mean?

Bill said...

You're asking me, Mr. Proudly Ignorant of Grammatical Terms? I found this nice definition:

(It's why the recent Post front-page headline "Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Hurting U.S. Terror Fight" was flawed.)

Bill said...

Definition of "Progressive"

Girl with the Interesting Hair said...

So, the Post headline is flawed from a technical standpoint -- but I don't find it unclear or open to interpretation. Do you?

Bill said...

No -- definitely a nicety in this case. But it would have been very easy to fix. An "Is" would have fit, or it could have been "Hurts," or the attribution could have come at the end.

Lillie said...

I correct or, if it is too late, cringe at headlines that have the very features you are describing. I was pleased a while back when you articulated why "says" requires "to be" later in the headline, as in your example "Police Say 2 Killed at Football Game." In many cases (not this one), "call" is an easy remedy that doesn't require any more space. ("Scientists Say Study Flawed" --> "Scientists Call Study Flawed.")
So, yes: "To be" is needed more often than many think. It's not arcane.

Bill said...

Thanks, Lillie. You put that in a nice, simple way that I'm not sure I ever did. And yes, "Call(s)" is invaluable.

Brian Ashe said...

On a related note, my all-time (least) favorite hard-to-parse headline was this one from about a year ago (presented in all-caps as it originally was):


At first glance, I thought it had something to do with the earthquake ruining lives. Then I thought it was about something living. After 3 or 4 more careful reads I finally got it.

- Everyone knows all-caps are harder to read. In this case it also hid the apostrophe. If I would have seen it the first time through I don't think I would have had a problem.
- Each of the words could be nouns or verbs. I think that's a pretty rare event. Just one totally unambiguous word would have been a big help.

Doug said...
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Doug said...

The problem the stylebook is trying to fix, of course, is the case where the verb can be interpreted either as simple past or as past participle. If you write Police Say 2 Died at Football Game, the meaning is perfectly clear because die is an intransitive verb without any helper needed.

As for requiring the helper with the progressive tense in all caes, sorry, but the WaPo stylebook is being a little anal there. I think Congaree River Rising is easily distinguishable from Congaree River Rises, the former meaning the rise continues and the latter, using the "historic present," meaning the recent rise is now over.

But maybe we've been addled by too much mixing of tenses and uses in broadcast, etc. to the point where people cannot distinguish. I say not -- at least not yet -- but feel free to disagree.