Thursday, March 08, 2007

Newspaper headline nouns superfluity confusion!

Here is a headline from the BBC news today:

Balloon crash safety changes call

When I read a sentence, I usually look for the various parts of it that help me decipher its meaning. In English, we usually have at least one noun and one verb per sentence. In the sentence 'the cat fell,' for example, you have a clear ACTOR, the cat, and something that the cat did, which is fall.

It is an established tradition for newspaper headlines to include only the parts of a thought necessary to get the meaning across while still sounding URGENT. The BBC, whose ability to sound URGENT is always clearly evident, has nevertheless been doing a pretty terrible job lately at the whole 'making sense' bit. Why is this?

Newspaper headlines like

Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor

though not what you would call a complete sentence, make the actors and actions contained within the articles' text evident through inclusion of a standard complement of subjects, verbs, and objects, almost always in that order. This is how we communicate in English; we can figure out that the word 'bomb' should be taken as a verb because it occurs where we expect it to. The BBC's headlines, though, have been increasingly consisting of lists of nouns with no verbs at all.

Even in this dire situation, sense can usually be made of the headlines. A mild case, like

Obese mothers-to-be 'a burden'

includes helpful adjectives, articles, and punctuation (imagine the BBC copy editor's panic upon reading Obese mothers to be a burden!), and sticks mostly to nouns that are lexically unambiguous (can't be used as verbs). Slightly murkier, but still intelligible, is the recent headline

Hunt for clues to Indonesia crash

which contains two nouns that, without context, could function as verbs. Is the BBC commanding us to hunt? Does the hunt crash? What are the clues to Indonesia? But we are thinking, reasoning beings, after all, and surely some verbosity must be sacrificed for URGENCY and quickness of reporting.

Read today's example again, though.

Balloon crash safety changes call

There is only one noun in this whole headline that cannot be construed as a verb ('safety'). When you read a sentence expecting at least one verb, as most readers of English tend to do, such a buffet of potential action words can be staggering. Even more so when none of these 'verbs' makes the headline understandable. Not until the bewildered reader consults the text of the article (which is disappointingly dull compared to the Dadaistic headline) does it emerge that the BBC is hammering us over the head with one big, unwieldy compound noun with its head at the very end (call). What they are trying to tell us is that there has been a call for changes to crash safety guidelines in (hot air) ballooning. Sometimes reading the BBC feels like playing charades with Yoda...

Stay tuned for further special report: BBC noun club plot giant success. (Like the ambiguity in that one!?)

19 comments:

Matt Robinson said...

You're like an academic Jay Leno.

EYE DROPS OFF SHELF

PROSTITUTES APPEAL TO POPE

KIDS MAKE NUTRITIOUS SNACKS

STOLEN PAINTING FOUND BY TREE

LUNG CANCER IN WOMEN MUSHROOMS

QUEEN MARY HAVING BOTTOM SCRAPED

DEALERS WILL HEAR CAR TALK AT NOON

MINERS REFUSE TO WORK AFTER DEATH

MILK DRINKERS ARE TURNING TO POWDER

DRUNK GETS NINE MONTHS IN VIOLIN CASE

JUVENILE COURT TO TRY SHOOTING DEFENDANT

COMPLAINTS ABOUT NBA REFEREES GROWING UGLY

PANDA MATING FAILS; VETERINARIAN TAKES OVER

POLICE BEGIN CAMPAIGN TO RUN DOWN JAYWALKERS

12 ON THEIR WAY TO CRUISE AMONG DEAD IN PLANE CRASH

KILLER SENTENCED TO DIE FOR SECOND TIME IN 10 YEARS

SAFETY EXPERTS SAY SCHOOL BUS PASSENGERS SHOULD BE BELTED

2 SISTERS REUNITED AFTER 18 YEARS AT CHECKOUT COUNTER

MAN EATING PIRANHA MISTAKENLY SOLD AS PET FISH

ASTRONAUT TAKES BLAME FOR GAS IN SPACECRAFT

QUARTER OF A MILLION CHINESE LIVE ON WATER

INCLUDE YOUR CHILDREN WHEN BAKING COOKIES

OLD SCHOOL PILLARS ARE REPLACED BY ALUMNI

GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE

HOSPITALS ARE SUED BY 7 FOOT DOCTORS

LAWMEN FROM MEXICO BARBECUE GUESTS

TWO SOVIET SHIPS COLLIDE, ONE DIES

ENRAGED COW INJURES FARMER WITH AX

LACK OF BRAINS HINDERS RESEARCH

RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE

SQUAD HELPS DOG BITE VICTIM

IRAQI HEAD SEEKS ARMS

HERSHEY BARS PROTEST

Justin said...

You spelled "ballooning" wrong... I like the headline "Prostitutes appeal to pope." That's wholesome.

flyingcloudkitty said...

Fantastic, Matt! I already told someone the "kids make nutritious snacks" one and they took it "seriously" haha...I'm bad.

Xolvox_chick85 said...

Neat, this is how you work on your Disseration?! I think i'll try blogging my honors project.

t&d said...

Hey, fellow West Coast people in Glasgow! We just happened upon your blog and wanted to say hello - and we think we've at least seen you two (the epic beard is memorable), and to share our favorite BBC headline:

"Great tits cope well with warming."

Boy. That BBC...

See you around.

t&d said...

"Concerns Raised for Crested Tits" - saw this headline and thought of your collection. Not quite as illiterate as some of the which fly by, but if you subscribe to BBC Scotland's feed you'll get quite a few coming through which are simply fabulous.

DaviMack said...

School fire thief sent to prison.

DaviMack said...

Factory death blast probe begins. Not up to the usual standard, I know, but ... well, it seemed appropriate

Joel A. Shaver said...

That's still pretty good. Language Log had this one last week:
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=279

DaviMack said...

Funny, I can't get that link to come up.

Have just finished giving the receptionist a hard time about "Cleaners Closet". No Apostrophe. What, exactly, do the cleaners closet, then? Because "closet" becomes a verb. I can only guess that it's a dire warning.

DaviMack said...

Pedestrian, 79, hit by car dies.

They were well on their way, with the commas about '79', but then they had to have the poor old man get hit by car dies. What is a car die? They press them out, like those children's toys ('die cast')?

DaviMack said...

And worse: Schoolboy jailed for child abuse. That would be what sending a schoolboy to jail would be, wouldn't it? I mean, of course it'd be child abuse to jail a schoolboy, right?

DaviMack said...

Underage drinks blitz all clear.

Yup. Find me the important verb, there. ;)

DaviMack said...

Cannabis seizure man due in court.

To have another cannabis-induced seizure? He's due to show up and demonstrate one, you see....

DaviMack said...

Canoe alert over games wrestler.

What's a "Canoe alert?" Or is the Canoe somehow alive and alert?

What's a "Games wrestler?" He's fabulous at beating down Scrabble?

Joel A. Shaver said...

They just keep coming! I think this link should work now.

DaviMack said...

Oh, that's a fabulous link! Thanks!

DaviMack said...

Woman, 44, gives birth to her 18th child in Canada.

She's had another few in California, one or two in Antarctica, but she managed 18 in Canada - thank God she settled down for a while.

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