January 11, 2008

Fighting against (fighting against) women

Hot on the heels of last month's "GOP cell phones," here's another shocking Associated Press headline hosted by Google News:

This headline was apparently sent out by the AP itself, since it originally showed up on other news sites when I first ran a search. It has been quickly corrected by most of these sites, using the new AP headline, "Alba, Holmes Fight Violence Vs. Women." (At the moment Examiner.com, Fredericksburg.com, Philly.com, Forbes.com, Guardian Unlimited, and a number of other sites join Google in continuing to reproduce the uncorrected headline.) I suspect that other media outlets have actual people checking for errors on the AP feed, while the hosting on Google News is completely automated. Good to know that human beings are still needed in the brave new world of online journalism!

Unlike the "GOP cell phones" (which were actually GPS cell phones), this type of error can't be blamed on an errant spellchecker. In this case I assume a kind of sentential compression went on in the headline writer's mind: from the A-list actresses fighting against violence against women to simply fighting against women. Given that headline writers and their editors are paid to compress sentences into terse distillations, this type of slip isn't all that surprising. I'd put it in the same class as undernegations like the LA Times reporting that Howard Stern is "not surprisingly optimistic about the future of broadcast radio" when "not surprisingly not optimistic" was intended. Writers and editors are always on the lookout for redundancies, and sometimes they can trim a little too far. Every now and then our linguistic instincts can unwittingly fight against the fight against redundancy.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 11, 2008 08:52 AM