Tuesday, March 26, 2013

There'll always be a noun pile

This must be why tabloids have Deputy Defence Editors:

A WOUNDED squaddie who had just lost both legs in a Taliban bomb blast begged a medic to show him her boobs — to help relieve his agony.

There is a point of syntax and practice here on which I solicit the input of our friendly UK subs as well as syntaxheads of all nationalities. I'm familiar with the idea of using prepositional phrases in heds, rather than scrambling around for a verb that fits and isn't libelous, and my first instinct is to think of the subject in those heds as an actor -- somebody who makes or gives the thing that's the object of the preposition:

Escaped gorilla in bid to eat toddler
US military chief in Iran warning
Pool mum in bid to save drowned boy

But in looking through the files, I see cases where the subject is the receiver of an action or event:

Yob brothers in hoods ban
Lad on jogger stabbing rap

Since the medic in question was mentioned in despatches for the rescue, inquiring minds want to know: If you're a Sun reader, can you tell who's the hero in this hed? Or is there more than one?

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Anonymous Picky said...

Can I respond without automatically classifying myself as a Sun reader? I think your instinct is quite right: absent other information, the participant before the prepositional phrase is the agent, and I certainly assumed it was the hero who was pleading for his rights to a boob flash (though how effective medically that would have been I am not sure). This applies with "in" prepositional phrases, which is why the "yob" head is odd. I think the "in" phrase normally includes a nominalised verb, of which the subject is taken to be the agent. But with "on" phrases like the "rap" one I think there is simple ellipsis of the verb "to be".

4:26 AM, March 27, 2013  
Anonymous Picky said...

And, yes, I think losing both legs automatically qualifies one as a hero in a tabloid head. So here there were two heroes, one with boobs.

4:30 AM, March 27, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

No, you can never tell! It could be the war hero asking for the boob flash or the war hero being asked to do the flashing. Normally with 'in' headlines you have to read the story to tell subject from object. In this case, even once you've read the story, the headline is still limpidly ambiguous (or, to be charitable, equally true for both readings).

Very powerful and rather slippery newspaper preposition, 'in'. It's only rivalled by 'amid' for hinting at causality without actually stating it.

4:32 AM, March 27, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

Ah - Picky and I have posted almost simultaneously and now there's a divergence of views!

4:44 AM, March 27, 2013  
Anonymous Picky said...

Good grief! Now I may have to spend some time researching in the pages of the Sun. No, on second thoughts I'll just throw in the towel. See, Fev? According to Mr Latham, Sun readers actually have to read the stories! Frightening thought, isn't it?

6:52 AM, March 27, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

Good grief! Fortunately the 'stories', such as they are, are fairly short.

Thinking further on the issue while waiting for some copy to come in (as ever), I can think of one fairly common 'in' headline - DITZY STARLET IN POLICE INVESTIGATION - in which the presumption would be that the person named is the object, rather than the agent (unless Ms Starlet has a second career in law enforcement, a la Steven Seagal). And another – HUNKY CELEB IN LOVE-RAT JIBE – where it would be a toss-up as to whether Mr Celeb received, or made, the jibe.

That's the trouble with 'in' headlines: You can point the damn things in whichever direction you want. I think the less reputable end of Fleet Street rather likes that about them.

I always think of that episode of the West Wing when the surgeon general makes an unwise public remark about marijuana and gets told off by Leo. When she asks how her remarks could possibly be used to discredit the administration, Leo says: 'They just need to say your name and "drugs" as many times as possible on television.' That's the kind of thing 'In' headlines are ideal for.

8:29 AM, March 27, 2013  
Anonymous Brian said...

Adding to my confusion was the word "plea." I immediately thought that the war hero had some sort of legal trouble.

10:23 AM, March 27, 2013  
Anonymous Picky said...

If the head is true, he probably did, Brian.

Well, Ed, I'm glad I surrendered, and I hereby resurrender, although – while I don't want to be too prescriptive about this – I still feel the starlet and hunk heads are cheats.  If they are not quite quasi-moral evils, they do lapse from the properly pure standards of tabloid head-writing. I shall be like Fowler and "that and which": my rule may not be the rule, but it damn-well ought to be.

10:27 AM, March 27, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

Hear hear! It's about time we had more codification, not less. I hereby undertake to follow the 'agent-appears-first' rule whenever space forces me into an 'in' headline.

10:51 AM, March 27, 2013  
Blogger fev said...

Thank you, gentlepersons. Trebles all round.

But I have another question: How did someone _not_ ask for the time element to be raised in this one? (The Sun talked to the medic "yesterday," but there doesn't seem to be any indication of when the main events took place.) Is that just a space issue?

9:17 PM, March 27, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

Oh yes: that's odd, isn't it? And here's an interview with Pte Tomkins in the Southern Daily Echo – independently reported, not just a follow-up –


in which the date of the incident is not mentioned either. What's going on?

3:54 AM, March 28, 2013  
Anonymous Picky said...

Because the MOD press release didn't say?

4:37 AM, March 28, 2013  

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