Saturday, October 07, 2006

Hed ambiguity and other sins

It's nice when heds are true (it's sort of the least they can do, and one that manifestly isn't is up for discussion later), but it's nicer when they're clear about what they're being true about. Copyeds, that means no closing your eyes and wishing the ambiguity of English would go away. It won't. As in:

Mexican hopes for
border met by fence
This could easily refer to three states of affairs. In one, "Mexican" is the subject, "hopes for" the verb," and "border met by fence" the direct object: A Mexican hopes for a border met by a fence -- sort of like a home where the buffalo roam, only there's a built-in buffalo-stop at the border. (The easy solution is a nice, unambiguous genitive modifer: "Mexico's hopes for ...")

That clears up one bit of confusion but leaves two other potential meanings. In both, "hopes" is the subject, "Mexican" modifies it, and "met" is a passive verb (unlike "Player helps blind woman," the truncation doesn't create any ambiguity). Trouble is, "meet" has a number of meanings, some of them directly contradicting each other. In one perfectly good reading, the fence satisfies or fulfills Mexico's hopes for the border. In another, which seems to be the one the story intended, the hopes are countered or opposed by the fence.

Which leaves us, of course, with a perfectly true hed. But since it could be true about so many things, throw it out and start over.

Barbecue wins
stoke up family
isn't as bad; the first line might cause a little temporary disorientation, but it'll clear up when the brain tries to make "stoke up family" an object. Still, why make readers work harder than they have to?

We'd mentioned "other sins" above, so ...
Are you ready for some football?

No, no, no. Never, never, never. File it with "Let the games begin" and "It's official." Friends don't let friends put cliches in big type on the front page.


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