Sunday, June 02, 2013

Son of the Flying Verb

Spare a moment of regret for the magnificent Flying Verb -- once roaming the midlands of North American continent in its mighty flocks, now so rare even in its remaining strip of East Coast habitat that many have never seen it in the wild. So here are a few from a different research project, inspired by Ed's comment on Saturday's post.

I'm not surprised if they look especially weird to British eyes, and I'd welcome any observations about whether this specific form -- an active clause with an elided third-person* subject -- had any currency outside the US. And it makes sense to read "charges" in that example as a noun standing for "There are charges," in that British heds make very tidy use of that sort of understood existential phrase. One of my favorites:

Storm after FA let manslaughter coach teach kids

... meaning (There is a ...) or (there has been a ...)

These examples, with "take" and "cremate," don't have the ambiguity of "charges."

Pondering all that, I think I've finally started to puzzle out what the Flying Verb was doing. It's like the passive voice, only shorter and, well, more active. Any time you're tempted to begin a hed with "Officials" or "Authorities," just take the pesky subject out! "Take 2 Pictures" is one count shorter than "2 Pictures Taken," and for the second, you'd have to create two separate passive clauses, each a count longer: "Nazis Cremated And Ashes Disposed Of Secretly." In another Tribune example cited here before, "Plan Dictator If War Wipes Out Capital," you save three whole hits over "Dictator Planned..." -- and that's hard to resist.

The Canadian example, again, is different because it has a singular subject: one draft official. We don't have enough data to talk about whether that's an actual difference in hed dialect, but it'd be interesting to look into.

If it's so handy, why did the Flying Verb go extinct? Well, first, it isn't exactly the ivory-billed woodpecker. You can still see it occasionally if you keep an eye on the New York tabloids, and a hybridized version -- with an explicit subject in a neighboring deck, as in the "Reveals:" hed at right -- even shows up in some broadsheets, like the Washington Times.

Further observations and comments, of course, are welcome.

* I expect that the understood "you"-- Try these three tips for tastier tomatoes! -- shows up in almost every hed dialect.


Anonymous Ed Latham said...

I think what I find particularly confusing about them is that they sound so like the imperative form. I'd more or less understand them if they were, eg, reporting a story in which someone had called for two pictures of Nazis to be taken after death in the future, and the headline was adopting the voice of the person making the demand. Then they'd be a bit like British "call" headlines, eg 'DISPOSE OF NAZI ASHES SECRETLY' CALL.

But they aren't like that: in the first example, it's just a straight report of what the photographer has already been doing. Apart from their position in the sentence, it's also the flying verb's present-tense-for-past-action thing that fakes me out.

10:16 AM, June 03, 2013  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I agree. It's the present-tense form that fakes you out. They read like Russian indefinites (elided "they"), but of course in Russian the third-person-plural form is totally different from the imperative, so you can't miss what it is. (Also, this in Russian is closer to an impersonal.) Still, do you suppose there was some hidden Slavic influence?

7:24 PM, June 03, 2013  
Blogger fev said...

This is interesting -- for me, the present tense is perfectly sensible, because hed tense has been pretty consistent across the decades: heds talk about the immediate past in the present tense (Sox thrash Yankees, not Sox thrashed Yankees; Enemy lands in Aleutians, not Enemy landed in Aleutians). But I'm really confused at how the audience figured out the imperative vs. declarative thing: Do Your Part For The War vs. Seize 100 Cases Of Booze At Ambassador Bridge.

I think it's that Lost Civilization part that draws my interest: obviously (moving jungle vine aside) it made sense to say it this way for some decades, and then (brushing away toxic insect) it didn't. So what happened in the rose-red city that made flying verbs no longer make sense?

I have lots more examples, but what we really need here are some eyewitnesses who wrote flying verbs or understood them.

9:56 PM, June 03, 2013  

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