Linguist: Heads Have Own Grammar
Posted: 18 February 2013 04:22 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Allan Metcalf has codified the basic rules of headline writing.

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Posted: 18 February 2013 06:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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"1. Use present tense for past events:”

But not events in the distant past.

VIKINGS DISCOVERED AMERICA: ARCHAEOLOGIST

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Posted: 18 February 2013 04:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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OP Tipping - 18 February 2013 06:14 AM

“1. Use present tense for past events:”


But not events in the distant past.

VIKINGS DISCOVERED AMERICA: ARCHAEOLOGIST

That’s quoting someone.  Could be a different rule.

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Posted: 18 February 2013 08:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Okay well take out the attribution and you would still use past tense.

You will use present tense for something that has already happened but sufficiently recently by the standards of the news cycle. 

THATCHER WARNED MITTERAND ON EXOCET SALE.

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Posted: 19 February 2013 03:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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OP Tipping - 18 February 2013 06:14 AM

“1. Use present tense for past events:”


But not events in the distant past.

VIKINGS DISCOVERED AMERICA: ARCHAEOLOGIST

But the example from the article is pretty distant!

1. Use present tense for past events:

COLUMBUS DISCOVERS
NEW ROUTE TO INDIA

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Posted: 19 February 2013 08:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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But the implication is obviously that that headline appeared in a paper as soon as the discovery was announced, a hypothetical late-fifteenth-century tabloid (in English, with modern headline rules).

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Posted: 19 February 2013 09:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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A good example of the confusion that can come from the use of the present tense to denote past events is the following (real) headline: “Brennan objects to use of waterboarding in CIA confirmation hearing.” The jokey interpretation of the head would be that Brennan objected when an attempt was made to waterboard him during the confirmation hearing ("Really, Senator, is this entirely necessar… <glug, glug>).  The non-jokey interpretation that springs to mind is that Brennan stated, during the hearing, that he objects to the US’s current policy regarding waterboarding.  However, what the article actually states is that Brennan claimed, during the hearing, that he had, in the past, “expressed personal objections” towards the use of interrogation techniques like waterboarding, but that he hadn’t done anything to stop the practice, because he was not part of the relevant chain of command.

Strictly speaking, anything Brennan said during the hearing would have been in the past, but the use of the present tense, especially in the context of the head as a whole, cues a reader to assume that an objection occurred during the hearing, not that a claim was made during the hearing that an objection had been expressed at some point in the past.  (I also question clipping “expressed personal objections” into either “objects” or “objected”.)

EDIT: I’m not claiming that this example proves that there is anything wrong with the convention of using the present tense to denote (recent) past events.  But care is warranted when attempting to briefly describe a complex temporal relationship, and the convention seems to increase the odds of creating this type of confusion.

[ Edited: 19 February 2013 09:21 AM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 19 February 2013 10:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I saw in a Thai paper “DRUG USERS SHOOT UP TO 10,000” which is unfortunate for the two meanings of shoot up. I reckon it was a pun by a sneaky sub. They’d normally use “rise” surely.

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Posted: 19 February 2013 11:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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“Brennan objects to use of waterboarding in CIA confirmation hearing.”

That’s not confusion over tense. It’s confusion over the verb to use and the noun use. Reword it to “Brennan objects to waterboarding policy in CIA hearing” and the potential for confusion all but disappears. (Some wag could still construe a jokey meaning out of, but the context for anyone who knows anything at all about the subject makes the headline clear.)

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Posted: 19 February 2013 12:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Well, it would all but eliminate ambiguity as to whether Brennan himself was waterboarded during the confirmation hearing, but it wouldn’t help with the other form of confusion I noted, which relates to when it was that an objection to waterboarding was made.  As far as I can tell, the point of the story is that Brennan claimed (during the hearing) that he had, at some point long prior to the hearing, expressed personal objections to the US’s then-current waterboarding policy.  I don’t think a reader would naturally conclude that that was what the story was about based on the headline, with or without the phrase “to use of”.

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Posted: 19 February 2013 12:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Unless there is reason to think that he had changed his mind and, at the time of his testimony, no longer objected to waterboarding, I don’t see anything wrong with the tense in the headline.

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Posted: 19 February 2013 05:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Well, if a headline makes a statement that is factually correct, but that isn’t really the point of the story that follows, I see that as at least a bit of an issue.  Here, the point of the story is that Brennan insisted during a hearing that he had previously expressed personal objections to water boarding while serving in a prior role.  He didn’t “object” to any current US policy or practice during the hearing itself (as far as I can tell).  I don’t think a reader would have a realistic chance of figuring out what the point of the story was from reading the headline.

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Posted: 20 February 2013 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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The reader is supposed to read the article, or at least the first paragraph or two.  A headline cannot be expected to carry the entire burden of the story.  If the story is a complicated one, as in this case, that is even more true.

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Posted: 20 February 2013 07:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Yes, one cannot expect any clipped style, like headlines, to effectively convey subtle details of the timing of events. They’re hard enough to depict accurately in regular prose.

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