Friday, September 07, 2007

Walsh Disputes Headline Written by Examiner

I'm not disputing that the headline was written by the Examiner; the Examiner wrote a headline, and I'm disputing that headline. Similarly, what the Examiner is saying in the headline is that there is a sex ring operating out of fire stations but that nonetheless D.C. officials are denying that fact.

I believe the headline writer meant D.C. officials deny sex ring is operating out of fire stations.

I've made the case for the helping verb before. In the case of the alleged sex ring there's an issue of meaning, but other times it's a nicety -- one that even a lot of copy editors don't quite grasp. It must be genetic, like the quirk that makes cilantro taste like soap to some unfortunate souls. When I try to teach colleagues about it, most of the time they smile and nod and start adding "Is" to all headlines, whether they need it or not.

In this case, at the very least, there's ambiguity. Consider "Woman Denies Man Asking for Sex."


heliogabalus said...

I personally find this misreading somewhat far-fetched. I imagine you mean something along the lines of, say, D.C. denied the sex ring a permit, but who would think that's what it means? What about "D.C. officials deny fire station sex ring"? Can't fix that with an "is," but it appears to suffer from the same dubious defect. Is "deny" simply never a good headline verb without an independent clause following it?

I don't buy it. I think 'deny' is usually assumed to mean 'claim to be false,' and only when context demands it is it interpreted as 'decline' or 'declare invalid.' Your second example, which contains the misreading 'deny ... request,' is an example of just such an unhappy context.

Unknown said...

Apparently I've got the same gene as Bill—my first thought was "Deny sex ring operating out of fire stations what?"

In related news, I also think cilantro tastes like soap.