Sunday, March 22, 2009

Looks like a job for Indy

No peeking: What's your first reading of this hed?

Mine -- leaning back and having a sip of the finest arak in Rick's Cafe (OK, it's still spring break, so it's my fantasy) -- is: My friend, smuggling ancient coffins into the United States is a challenging business these days. Vultures everywhere! Perhaps you can assure us of your bona fides?

So we have an ambiguous hed here. It's a bit different from yesterday's, in which the absence of the complementizing "that" left you with a couple of choices:*
Biologist warned killer chimp was dangerous
Biologist warned (that) killer chimp was dangerous
Biologist warned killer (that) chimp was dangerous

... but it's still a case of being left flatfooted at the crossroads by a normal grammatical move, in this case reducing a relative clause. Usually,** you can knock the relative pronoun and copulative verb out of a relative clause without any impact on meaning:

Smith, who is a prominent lawyer and notorious laudanum-eater...
Smith, a prominent lawyer and notorious laudanum-eater...

... which is exactly what Fox is doing with "Egypt wants 3,000-year-old coffin (that was) smuggled into U.S." Trouble is, "want" with the wrong sort of verb or adjective carries a different meaning that, absent a handy clue like the relative pronoun, is likely to be the first that comes to mind:

I want those prisoners shot before sunrise
I want the kitchen cleaned by lunch
I want that coffin smuggled into America

And these, then, are potentially quite different chunks of meaning:

I want the coffin
I want the coffin smuggled into America
I want the coffin smuggled into America returned at once


Moral: If you can't tell what you're saying, go ahead and de-omit a few words that your journalism teacher told you to omit. They aren't "needless words" if they help somebody figure out what you mean on the first go-round.

* Kudos to The Ridger for picking out this ambiguity; I've spent so much time in Fox World that I assume killer chimps are a normal state of affairs. The idea of killers having biologists around for consulting makes a lot of Fox sense too, but I'm still not convinced it's the normal reading of things.
** Unless you're the New York Times and think it's just too-too informal to reduce relative clauses. With all appropriate respect to the Times and its hobgoblins, the insistence on full relative clauses is genuinely irrational.

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11 Comments:

OpenID q-pheevr said...

There's another ambiguity in the killer chimp headline, I think. Given the general headlinese practice of omitting auxiliary verbs, it's possible to construe it as a passive: Biologist [was] warned [that] killer chimp was dangerous.

It's harder to know how this ambiguity could best have been avoided, since it doesn't actually involve the omission of potentially useful words from the headline itself--just the reader's knowledge that such words are sometimes omitted. I guess one could make it a past perfect (Biologist had warned that killer chimp was dangerous), assuming that the warning did indeed happen before whatever not-actually-lethal activity the chimp got up to; my intuitions as a headline-reader tell me that it's not possible to elide been from the sequence had been warned, so that should eliminate the passive reading. It takes up more space, of course, but we can more than make up for that by deleting killer, thereby averting both the ambiguity that The Ridger pointed out and the possibility of a libel suit from the dangerous-but-not-homicidal chimp.

10:25 AM, March 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the New York Times is correct about your Smith example. Consider, how many persons are involved in the second of these?

· Smith, who is a prominent lawyer and notorious laudanum-eater...
· Smith, a prominent lawyer and notorious laudanum-eater...

I first read three, although I can see a case for two. I would prefer another comma for clarity. I certainly don't see only one.

11:27 AM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Yes, that'd be clearer with the main-clause verb, wouldn't it?

Smith, a lawyer and notorious laudanum-eater, was arrested last week outside his office.

It's easier with only one noun after the linking verb:

Smith, who is a graduate of the Big State Law School, donated his collection to the BSU law library.

Smith, a graduate of the Big State Law School, donated his collection to the BSU law library.

12:01 PM, March 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's pretty hard to fix that chimp headline! "Biologist predicted killer chimp threat" still leaves you wondering if the threat was from the chimp, or to him. "'Chimp is dangerous!' warned biologist" is a long way from the original, but at least it's unambigous.

Can passive voice help here? "Killer chimp danger predicted by biologist". Nope. "Chimp's aggression predicted by biologist" has promise, though, and avoids calling the animal a killer when it apparently hasn't killed anyone.

Actually, that apostrophe could help here. "Biologist predicted chimp's aggression" is short and, I think, unambiguous. (All versions with "warns" are hopeless; strangely, even adding "of" doesn't help.)

Mary Kuhner

12:09 PM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Surely that would have to be "... and A notorious laudanum-eater" to get the three-person reading, given the presence of the first "a"?

4:35 PM, March 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(re: The Ridger, FCD) Not at all. Consider:
· Smith, a prominent lawyer and notorious laudanum-eater Jones found after long search
for an ambiguous two- or three-person rendering.

5:54 PM, March 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Sorry, sent too soon.)

The three-person reading is more natural. Even with an added comma the prominent lawyer can be either appositional or describe a separate person.

6:01 PM, March 23, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Yeah, if you add another name to it. Then the one-person reading isn't even possible any more. But without it, I still think the three-person reading isn't.

You want the serial comma; I like it, too, but I don't think it's really possible to stay confused once something follows "laudanum-eater".

7:37 PM, March 23, 2009  
Anonymous Peter Barnes said...

If you think arak is good, you should try konyagi. Only 660 Tanzanian shillings per plastic sack!

6:48 PM, March 24, 2009  
Anonymous Cat said...

I would have thought that all killer chimps were dangerous; I don't really need a biologist to warn me of that.

12:01 PM, March 25, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Maybe it was the kind of killer chimp that's perfectly nice as long as you sing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" to it. Or ply it with konyagi, which is starting to sound tempting.

5:06 PM, March 25, 2009  

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