Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Today's hed is a reminder that, however awesome your diagramming skills get, some "grammar" just isn't amenable to understanding without context. If you replace the current secretary of state with the previous one -- "Powell, wife defend president" -- you get rather a different meaning, which calls for some digression into the unruliness of nouns.

Even in a narrow category, like the ones that express family relationships, nouns are slippery characters. Usually, when a cousin or brother or aunt or grandnephew shows up in a news story, it's in the context of someone who's already been introduced or whose aura hangs over the whole thing (Billy Carter could enter a story first, but only because his brother was president). Exceptions come in two categories: man-bites-doggedness, which is why "Grandma robs bank" is a plausible* hed and "Cousin robs bank" isn't, and pathos, which is why the only Fox News hedline NP that trumps Missing Mom is Missing Pregnant Mom.

Even when there's another person in the hed, a family noun doesn't necessarily show a relationship with that person: "Grandma Robs Bank, Endorses Bush," for example, or "Bush Expresses Concern About Missing Mom." But "wife" isn't usually in that category; it wants to point to someone, and we can extract a couple useful rules about how that relationship seems to work.

If there's only one noun in the hed, that's where "wife" points: "Wife defends Bush" means "Laura Bush defends Bush." If "wife" is part of a compound, it stays in the compound: "Powell, wife defend Bush" means "Colin and Alma defend Bush." Make sense? Sure, until you get to "Rice, wife defend Bush." If your readers remembered to pack their Context (and unfortunately, they probably did), no one's going to be confused for more than a second. But that's not the sort of bet you want to place on just any proper name.

I am trying really, really hard not to comment on the actual content of the interviews, but if that's how Condi Rice handled her comps defense, somebody should have hit her upside the head with a copy of Politics Among Nations and told her to come back when she was ready.

* If (almost presumptively) sexist and ageist; kids, don't try that one at home.

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3 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Nouns are tricky things, aren't they?

12:45 PM, December 30, 2008  
Blogger Strayhorn said...

I just figured Condi went to San Francisco and made it official.

Oh, wait, that's still in legal limbo as well.

Stupid Californians . . .

1:34 PM, December 30, 2008  
Blogger Wishydig said...

I was confused for well over a second. I had to fix the semantics by figuring that this was some other Rice. I couldn't figure it out until I read your full first paragraph. Even with the context I still don't really see it clearly.

9:36 PM, December 30, 2008  

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