Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Stupid Question, with a twist

Regular readers will recall that using the question mark as a form of hed attribution is high on the list of untenable evils in these parts. Some question heds, though, are drastically dumber than others. As in:

Helping pregnant teen a criminal act?
WASHINGTON -- The Senate reopened the abortion debate Friday in advance of the midterm elections, this time over a bill that would make it a federal crime to take a teenager across state lines to end a pregnancy without a parent's knowledge.

There's a short answer, and it's "no." That seems to be why the World's Baddest Deliberative Body is having the debate. So the hed's more misleading than the usual Stupid Question, in that it doesn't even have the minimum two choices.

The bigger point is that although "help" is a multitalented verb, the direct object "teen" assigns it a specific role (door No. 2 below),* which happens to be the wrong one:

I'd like to help.
I'd like to help the pregnant teen.
I'd like to help the pregnant teen (find a shady place to sit).
I'd like to help the pregnant teen (cross the state line to get an abortion).

A little bit of grammatical footwork can make quite a difference:

It's illegal to feed your kids.
It's illegal to feed your kids arsenic.
It's illegal to feed your kids to the piranha.

In the real-life example, because the grammatical distortion conforms so neatly with the paper's editorial stance, the hed is particularly vulnerable to charges of deliberate dishonesty. I'd prefer to think it's just another Stupid Question, but I doubt I could convince an angry reader.

* Dr. HEADSUP-L and Your Correspondent have been trying to assign everything in this effort to its proper grammatical slot for half an hour now, and we're still not entirely in agreement. Details may or may not follow.


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