Sunday, November 08, 2009

Topless-coffee shops and other delights

Not all ambiguity is equal. Come to that, not all ambiguity is even ambiguous. But there are cases in which the casual elisions and collisions of news language produce something that risks a serious misunderstanding.

First, the innocent ones. You're likely to get this one right:

Topless Coffee Shop Owner Wants To Re-Open In Office Trailer

... even without hyphens, even if you haven't been following this earth-shattering case over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. It goes (topless coffee shop) (owner), not (topless) (coffee shop owner): "Shop" is the business end of an attributive noun phrase modifying "owner," giving us a "shop owner," not a "topless owner." It'd be quicker and clearer as "Topless coffee shop's owner," but it's hard to make a credible case that "topless owner" is the likely reading.

The Freep online* hed shown above is a different matter. If you think we're talking about tapes of the alleged party itself,** you're making a very reasonable guess. Unfortunately, you're wrong. It's "a cache of 911 dispatch tapes or cops' computer files" stemming from the investigation.

There aren't a lot of great alternatives. "Did Manoogian probe tapes vanish?" is a bit of a crash blossom, and worse, it's still a Stupid Question. If you've dug up testimony this interesting:

A day later, when State Police went back to a vault where both sides had agreed to store the 36 tapes in a sealed box, the investigators found the seal broken and 30 tapes missing, according to the testimony.

... it'd be nice to tell me, rather than asking me.

* It's "Did Manoogian tapes vanish?" in print -- not great, or even good, but not as obviously misleading as "party tapes.".
** Judging from the archives, it looks as if there's a stylebook entry decreeing that the proper first reference is "long-rumored Manoogian Mansion party."

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