Thursday, May 06, 2010

Break out the clue bazooka

This is neither an ungram- matical hed nor an ambiguous one. It is, however, a remarkably dumb one, because it's unambiguously grammatical about something that the story unambiguously says didn't happen:

The police officer was not struck by the gunfire, and the man got away.

Even if you didn't read that far, the lede might have been a bit of a clue:

Police say the man accused of shooting at a police officer last weekend is in jail today, after being caught following a brief pursuit Wednesday on an interstate highway in Charlotte.

Either the target or the projectile could be a fine direct object for "shoot":

Frankie shot Johnny
Frankie shot an arrow into the air, but it went through Johnny first

... but if the target is the direct object here, that means you hit it.

There's an outside chance that some overzealous editor was overextending some dimly misunderstood textbook rule about excessive prepositions: "serve up breakfast" vs. "serve breakfast," for example. Or it could be a particularly inelegant case of elegant variation: the fear of mimicking the lede too closely in the hed. Or it could be just a temporary case of clue fail. Whichever, the general reaction of the reading public isn't "oh, another story screwed up by the desk." The public at large doesn't know where heds come from, so the usual response is to blame the writer.

Thus the hed does double damage. It makes the paper look silly, but it also risks leaving the writer to explain to his sources why someone else's mistake isn't his. That doesn't help the cause.

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