Thursday, November 20, 2008

A broken record is sounded like

Oyez, oyez. Order will now be come to by the Loyal Order of Friends of the Passive Voice.

If a broken record is starting to be sounded like, there's a reason. Verb voice is a grammatical tool that writers use to make meaning -- not to appease some half-remembered demonic cackle from the bowels of the J2100 textbook. The hed writer made a bad choice, resulting in a hed that's perfectly "grammatical" but misleading, not to mention a lot less interesting than it ought to be.
"Sink" is what your dictionary calls a "vb," meaning it has both transitive and intransitive uses. When we don't know or need to mention who or what might have been responsible, the intransitive form is fine. The takeaway point on the Edmund Fitzgerald is that it sank, and you can wait a few verses before deciding on whether it split up or capsized or broke deep and took water. The Hood* is a different case -- it's not wrong to note that it sank in May 1941, but it's probably more relevant to point out that it was sunk by the Bismarck (transitive and passive). Whether it's better still to say the Bismarck sank the Hood (transitive and active) is the sort of question good editors don't answer without looking at the context, but at least the transitive sense gets straight to the idea that somebody sank something. Which, after all, is the point of a lede like this:
The Indian navy sank a suspected pirate “mother ship” and chased two attack boats into the night, officials said Wednesday, as the owners of a seized Saudi oil supertanker negotiated for the release of their vessel and its $100 million cargo.
For hed purposes, we don't need to know who did the sinking (object outranks subject in this case), but we do need to know it was done deliberately. Intransitive "sink" gives you an active hed, but the passive "is sunk" gives you a relevant hed. There's a difference.
Oh, and whoever wrote:
Please don't do that again.
* OK, the Economist ought to be more careful when it ventures into phonetics, but a good Economist obit is a true delight.

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1 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Luxury yacht sinks; pirate ship is sunk.

This headline makes me expect a sort of "how ironic is that?" story, not an act of violence.

11:16 AM, November 21, 2008  

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