Friday, June 01, 2007

Hed grammar lesson

Ever scratch your head and wonder why you got a handout in J4400 that said: "If your hed's main verb comes from a relative clause, you wrote the wrong hed"? Here's what it looks like in real life.

This isn't the sort of "bad" grammar that violates silly prescriptive rules nobody believes in. Nor the sort of out-and-out miswiring that changes the meaning around. As heds go, this one is wired together perfectly, and unlike some heds it has the distinct advantage of being true in the bargain. What makes it bad grammar is that it uses the wrong wiring diagram:

5 from 82nd Airborne killed in crash
RALEIGH, N.C. --Five soldiers who died this week when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed in Afghanistan were members of the 82nd Airborne Division, officials said Friday.

This is the diagram for a first-day hed. "(Are) killed" is the verb in the main clause. The subject is "5" and the "from 82nd Airborne" tells you which "5." It would have been a fine hed online on Wednesday, when the crash happened, or in print on Thursday.

But by now, "5 killed" is old news. The news is the victims were with the 82nd Airborne. That means "killed in crash" needs to become a relative clause (as in the lede, more or less) and move leftward to modify "5." We need to fill in the equational verb, to signal that we're back to the main clause and not in an endless loop of dog-who-chased-the-cat-who-killed-the-rat clauses. So we get:

5 killed in crash were from 82nd Airborne
There's still a lot of room for improvement. From the hed, there's no way to tell this wasn't a traffic accident. "Afghan crash victims" or "copter crash victims" would be a start. But at least it gets stuff in the right order.

Moral: Grammar makes meaning. If you get a meaning that doesn't correspond with your intent, you have the wrong grammar -- even if it's otherwise flawless.


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