July 28, 2007

From the headline desk at Language Log Plaza

Here at the headline desk at LLP, we don't write headlines, we analyze 'em.  The latest headline episode began on Wednesday with Ben Zimmer's puzzlement at the following head on a Reuters story:

Taliban say kill Korean hostage, set new deadline

At least that was the head here at the time.  What you get at that site now is

Taliban kill South Korean hostage in Afghanistan

and a somewhat rewritten story.  In the interim, Barbara Partee found the rewritten story with yet another head:

Taliban say they killed Korean hostage

These two are entirely ordinary as headlines, but the original is remarkable.  We gathered around the water cooler and I delivered a long lecture trying to assimilate the "say kill" head to some other remarkable heads I looked at back in 2005 (which I'll get to in a little while), while Heidi Harley speculated that it was just an editing error.  Then Barbara and Ben found some more heads like the first, most of them on Reuters stories, and we were obliged to find some sort of analysis for them.

So, some hits.  From Barbara:

Researchers say find key nerve injury protein  (link) [Reuters]

US troops say find second site with vials, powder  (link)

Ben then searched on Factiva for {"say find"} and found 31 heads, all but one from Reuters, e.g.:

U.S. scientists say find cause of degenerative disease.
Reuters News, 3 July 1991

Peru rescuers say find survivors from plane crash.
Reuters News, 2 October 1996

Scientists say find gene for child cancer syndrome.
Reuters News, 7 May 1997

Congo rebels say find massacre of Tutsis
Reuters News, 18 August 1998

Thai police say find, lose North Korean diplomat.
Reuters News, 9 March 1999

At this point the water cooler crowd proposed that that the headlines are of the form:

plural subject of say -- say -- complement of say: finite plural present-tense VP

which is almost an ordinary headline, except that the finite complement of say is missing a subject:

Researchers say find key nerve injury protein 'Researchers say they find key nerve injury protein'

In this analysis, both the main clause, with say, and the complement clause, with find, are in the "headline present", interpreted as present, present perfect, or past, depending on the context.  There's nothing unusual about that.  But subject omission in a complement clause (though attested) is rare in English, even in registers where subject omission in main clauses is commonplace, as in:

Saw two foreigners the other day taking pictures of a building in Times Square.  Don't know what country they were from.  [1sg subject] (Clyde Haberman "NYC" column, "Picture-Takers, Noisemakers And Evildoers", NYT 6/11/04, p. A23, beginning in diary form)

Long Beach (AP)...  Drago, a 3-year-old Belgian Shepherd, disappeared from Officer Ernie Wolosewicz's back yard Sunday.  Turns out he was picked up by animal control.  [dummy it subject] (Palo Alto Daily News, 11/6/03, p. 35)

"There is a guy who would like to be on the board [of catering firm Caterair].  He's kind of down on his luck a bit.  Needs a job. ... Needs some board positions."  [3sg subject, supplied in context] (Ron Suskind, "Without a Doubt", NYT Magazine, 10/17/04, pp. 48-9, about George W. Bush)

The subject-omission proposal is supported by headlines with 3sg present finds in the complement (just in case you thought kill and find in the earlier examples were base-form, rather than present-tense, verbs):

3sg says: U.S. researcher says finds Atlantis off Cyprus  (link) [Reuters]

3sg says: Extreme Networks says finds deficiencies in option practices  (link) [Reuters]

and by headlines with past-tense found in the complement:

3pl say: Iraqi forces say found more US-made weapons  (link)

3pl say: US forces in Iraq say found more Iran-made weapons  (link) [Reuters]

3sg says: Statoil says found oil northwest of Shetlands  (link) [Reuters]

3sg says: Researcher says found location of the Holy Temple  (link)

This particular headline formula seems to be mostly a Reuterism, but it has a robust life on that news service.   Subject omission in complement clauses lives!

Now to the odd headlines from 2005, all of them reported by Ron Hardin on the newsgroup sci.lang (and many of them  commented on by me on the American Dialect Society mailing list at the time).  All but one were from AP wire stories Hardin found in the Washington Post:

Ind. Fire Said May Take Days to Burn Out

Seepage Said Likely Didn't Cause Oil Spill

Hunter S. Thompson Said Spoke of Suicide

Mercury Damage to Babies Said Costs $8.7B

Drugs to Quit Smoking Said Show Promise

Japan Flight Said Hits Turbulence; 4 Hurt

DeLay Said Agreed Not to Extend Dad's Life

These are all of the form:

subject of finite VP -- said -- finite VP [present or past tense]

The other headline came from the Scientific American; it has a reduced predicate, found 'is found':

Starless Galaxy Said Found

The interpretation of such examples is along the lines of:

a source has said: subject -- finite VP

(Notice how different this is from the "say find" headlines, where the initial NP serves as the subject of a form of SAY.)

Your first inclination is probably to try to relate the Hardin headlines to garden-variety headlines like

Risk (Is) Said to Increase with Age

and, yes, the infinitival-passive headline formula exemplified here no doubt played a role in the creation of the Hardin formula, but there's no way to see the Hardin pattern as simply a telegraphic version of the infinitival-passive pattern (which is itself quite close to ordinary English).  The Hardin pattern is, in effect, a construction of its own, restricted to headlines (and possibly to just a few headline writers).

I'd argue, in fact, that in general it's a mistake to see "telegraphic" or "truncated" patterns as literally reductions of fuller versions, whatever the history of the "abbreviated" versions.  Once the shorter versions are out there, they can pick up new meanings and discourse functions and can undergo syntactic change.  But that's a topic for another day.

Also for another day is the use of Taliban in the original example.  It's a "zero plural" there, functioning as a plural NP syntactically but (in English) lacking an overt mark of plurality.  In addition, Taliban is also used as a mass noun by some people (so that it functions as a singular NP syntactically), and some people have Taliban "doubly categorized", sometimes used as a count plural and sometimes as a mass singular.  These wrinkles in English morphosyntax belong in a follow-up to my posting "Plural, mass, collective".

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 28, 2007 08:55 PM