Monday, December 10, 2007

Andromeda with cream and dog

This deck ("Black hat might link ...") from the Rocky Mountain News is strange enough that it merits a new category. Until a better term comes along, it's an Andromeda Strain hed, as in: We've been looking at it since it landed, and now we're climbing into the isolation suits, and we're not coming out until somebody from Language Log gets here to explain exactly what the deck means and what far-distant sunless sea it came from.

"Black hat" is interesting enough. First reports on the radio yesterday said the attacker at the YWAM dorm was wearing a "skullcap" (in some later reports, a "beanie"), but a "black hat" is something like what Clint Eastwood is wearing in "Pale Rider." What's on the guy's head? Is a skullcap a hat, or is that the sort of category mistake that makes bats into birds and dolphins into fish? What's happening when it links the "same" gunman to the slayings? Wouldn't it be more interesting if it linked different gunmen to the slayings?

But the real fun is all the stuff in the "before" clause (and it's kind of clammy in the suits here, so we'd really appreciate it if you could pick it up with the diagramming help). What if the hat linked the same gunman to the slayings after he (or they) was (or were) killed? What if it doesn't link him (them) to the slaying(s)? What if it's a different gunman, but the same hat, and it links the shootings at exactly the same time as the time-space portal opens between the link and the gunman's getting shot, and (here's the twist) it's a male security guard?* You can see why it's getting complicated.

Moral? Sure. Readers don't become telepathic in the presence of a Big Story. They'd kind of like a headline that lays stuff out and organizes the day's events into some sort of order, so they don't have to do it themselves. And they'd really appreciate it if somebody would get here and declare the area secure before they all have to drive off to work in the damn isolation suits.

And a pair of 1A heds from the Post, across town, underscore the need to be nice and clear, even in the crunch of a Big Story:

The trouble with "Man denied mission stay" is that when you reduce the relative clause (from "Man [who was] denied mission stay"), there's no immediate clue about where to put "denied." For the first two-thirds of the hed, it's quite plausibly an active verb that goes with "man" (and "mission stay" just becomes the subject of a "that"-less clause). You have to get to the predicate of the main clause, then puzzle out that it's "shot," rather than "denied," that goes with "man," before you know what's what.**

On the other side of the photo, there's a different sort of problem. "Believe" does different things when it's hooked to a prepositional phrase than when it's hooked to a subordinate clause. You can "believe in" spirits of the vasty deep, but that's vastly different from believing "that" they'll come when you call on them. The cops don't have "reason to believe in" a connection; they have "reason to believe that" there is a connection.

That's an argument about syntax. It's worth recalling, though, that syntax happens in context of the rest of the page. "Reason to believe in" says something different within the context of a page about shootings at a mission dorm and a megachurch. It's clearly right for a lot of stories spinning off this event. It's just as clearly wrong for a story about the investigation itself.

* Different sort of normative point, but: You figure somebody who has shot a heavily armed and provably dangerous nutcase on a Sunday morning in the line of duty has enough to worry about without a flood of headlines that say "And she's a GIRL, too"?
** This wouldn't have been a problem if the subordinate verb had been, say, "give," rather than "deny": "Man given mission stay" can't be confused with "Man gave mission stay."



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Ooooo. An argument to preserve irregular verbs! I like it...

5:38 AM, December 11, 2007  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I was looking at this again (for inclusion in coursework) and it struck me: "reason to believe" (lies) in connection!

Yes, that connection gives them a reason to believe!

9:52 AM, January 15, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Wow, nice shot. I think -- posing as a real grammarian -- that it would rely on analysing 'lies' as a linking verb, so it could pass itself off as a standard hed elision. I'm not sure that's ecologically valid, but I'm open to correction.

And, acknowledging that I might not want to know, I have to ask -- what course?

12:28 AM, January 17, 2008  

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