Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hed tautology of the day

Murder suspect sought in man's slaying
One man was killed and another was injured after an argument in Statesville ended in gunfire early Saturday morning, and police are looking for a Charlotte man who is charged with murder.

To enjoy the stuff that's wrong with this one, you have to bear in mind the cases in which you would write a hed that contains "suspect sought in man's slaying." Bear in mind, first, that a "suspect" is a particular known person who's suspected of a particular crime. "Suspects" don't rob banks; those people are "robbers." As long as you keep those categories separate -- "suspects" are identifiable people accused but not convicted, and "robbers" are the yet-unidentified people who did the act that the suspects are suspected of -- you won't set off the crude sort of libel buzzer we keep at the copydesk.

The object in a hed like this (the passive voice is God's gift to heds, and never let a textbook tell you otherwise) generally tells you a category of thing being sought, with no implication that the cops know who or what out of that category might have done the evil deed: "Mystery Ape Sought In Rue Morgue Death," say, or "Armed Attackers Sought After Campus Mugging." Let's call the direct object the D slot and the crime scene at the end of the prepositional phrase the P slot.

When "suspect" isn't modified, the same crime is fitting into both the D and P slots: A specific person (D) has been identified as the suspect in P: Suspect sought in shooting. When "suspect" is modified, the picture changes a bit. The D slot is identifying the suspect by familiar one crime, and the P slot is describing the new one that the suspect is sought in. Vandalism suspect sought in murder means the guy arraigned last week in the Great Vandalism Scare is the person now being sought in Rue Morgue Slaying.

So "suspect sought in slaying" means one kind of relationship between D and P, and "[blank] suspect sought in slaying" means the other kind. Unless we're talking about two different murders, "murder suspect sought in man's slaying" is pretty much the same as "hit-and-run suspect sought in hit-and-run." Spend the space adding some information that the hed doesn't already contain: "Charlotte man sought in man's slaying."

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