Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Question-beggar's banquet

This isn't just a Stupid Question; it's a particular kind of Stupid Question, and it combines with other bits of misdirection to make for an amazingly uninformative hed.

First off, is it a "union" mystery or a "Union" mystery? If you're from that neck of the woods (and familiar with the general anti-labor sentiment), you probably have a good chance of guessing "Union," but the proper name isn't much help. There's a Union County (as well as a town of Union) in each of the two leading Carolinas. So the best you can start with is that there's a mystery, and it's probably in one of several places called Union.

Now to the Stupid Question itself. It's different, but not "ungrammatical." If you want to know the identity of the former owner-operator of the human skeleton on your property, you'd more likely ask "Whose bones are these?" "Human bones are whose?" is an echo question, often used to clarify something that's just been said. As Huddleston and Pullum put it, you might do this because you simply didn't hear the previous statement or because you couldn't believe it: "because its content is surprising or remarkable in such a way that I want to verify whether you did in fact say, or mean to say, what I apparently heard."

The bones on my farm are Jimmy Hoffa's.
The bones on your farm are whose?

We're not being led up a garden path, but through officialese and second-cycling, we're led all around the farm -- or as the second graf puts it, the "farm property" -- before we find out anything interesting:

Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey says more investigation is needed before authorities can determine the identity of the person whose bones were discovered Saturday by a young hunter.

If you follow the basic rule of writing news heds -- go for independent clauses, not relative clauses -- you get a lot of boring heds, like "Sheriff: More investigation needed," before you get to the thing you don't know: "Human bones found in Union County."

I suppose it's possible to write a worse hed, but why try?

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