June 14, 2007

Confused? Read on...

In today's BBC News online, you can find the headline:

US rejects China currency charge

  1. Did China accuse the US of messing with its currency?
  2. Did someone find out that low quality American dollars rejected by the US Treasury are being recycled as Yuan?
  3. Is there an excess of positive ions on Yuan bank notes?
  4. Is the US annoyed at the Yuan's overly rapid advance?
  5. Did China accuse the US of not staying up to date?
As it happens, none of the above meanings were intended.

The headline describes a refusal of the US Treasury to accuse China of manipulating trading of the Yuan. Now I'll freely admit that most of the readings I can come up with for the headline are implausible, although it's fun to identify them. (Challenge: how many readings can you find?) But still, in this case and many others it's impossible to identify the correct reading unless you already know the story. While it's obvious that currency manipulation is the crime, it's all but impossible to tell who's accusing who.

Why is it that headlines are so maddeningly ambiguous? Is there an incentive for headlines to be vague or ambiguous in order to draw the reader in? This would run counter to standard claims and prescriptions about what makes good functional language... but that doesn't mean the technique doesn't work.

And is this even restricted to newspaper headlines? When you get down to it, aren't many of our utterances, though dressed up as useful packages of information, in fact just a tease? Nice weather. Is it that time already. Do you have a sister? What are you wearing? Quiet in here, isn't it?

But I digress. I was in the middle of a stock post about ambiguous news headlines, an old favorite of viral emails, intro linguistics classes, and, of course, Language Log (e.g. here). Yet I think few people realize just how common the phenomenon really is. On one single day a few weeks ago (May 24 2007), the BBC News website not only contained the three intentionally groan-inducing headers Bird makes a splash on Bush, NY yellow taxicabs 'to go green', and Genes shed light on fish fingers, but also all of the following apparently 'straight' headlines:

Lack of nurses 'killing Africans'
 (I don't get it. Why would we want nurses to kill Africans?)

Polls close in Ireland's election
 (Are they really so close? Or did they close?)

Tamil rebels launch naval attack
  (Attack on a navy? With a navy? Both?)

US approves pill to stop periods
  (Headline writers have obviously been taking it for years.)

Social security for Indian poor
 (It's a damn shame that Indian's social security is poor.)

Wal-Mart to sell Dell computers
 (Doesn't Dell already have computers?)

Sleepless record man feeling fine
 (Did the sleepless try to record a man feeling fine as part of a cure for their insomnia?)

One wonders if headline writers get paid by the meaning.

Posted by David Beaver at June 14, 2007 01:43 AM