Archive | March, 2017

The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline

21 Mar


So the allegation is that City regulators waved through an allegedly illicit payment for a supposedly profitable oilfield to a man who had been convicted of a money-laundering offence over an unrelated matter. Two huge oil companies allegedly completed the transaction with this man via the offices of a national government. Former MI6 officers are claimed to have been at the heart of the deal and some of the money in question was also used to purchase armoured cars, it is alleged.

Picking the right verb for the headline at times like this is tricky – or at least, finding space for the kind of caution that the Tribune’s lawyer will be happy with. “Accused of”, “said to have”, “reported to be” – they make the story safer in the courts, but dilute its impact on the page. As previously discussed, you could always replace the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for those collections of circumstances whose precise relationship to each other is hard to elucidate.*

But if the verbs are hard, the nouns are easy in stories like this: they jump out. Oil, disgrace, MI6, armour, $800m: there’s too many to choose from. With ingredients this good, you don’t actually need to write a sentence: you can just write a shopping list.

And they’re easy to assemble. Start with one or two of the most colourful bits of the story. Put the core of the news last. If you like, add an EMPHATIC Daily Mail intensifier in uppercase as garnish … and you’ve got yourself a list headline.

Like this:


This is, of course, the General Petraeus love-affair scandal that shook the US in 2012. By this stage of the investigation, the whole story had become quite complicated, with a second woman and another leading general drawn in to the narrative. This Mail article actually reveals there were two sets of emails, sent independently between more than one pair of protagonists; the second was only discovered by chance after an unrelated police inquiry. That’s a lot to try to explain even in headlines as long as the Daily Mail’s. So the obvious thing to do is to abandon the verbs and go with the nouns.

What’s even more impressive is the second part of that headline: an adverbial clause followed by an object noun phrase, separated by a comma and nothing else. That’s advanced verb-avoidance indeed.

Admittedly, in this case, it’s hard to read any but the most benign missing words into the gap:

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [read] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [this is] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

But it goes to show how well you can attract readers’ attention without ever telling them what’s going on.

*Or, indeed, is non-existent.

Fly me to the Sun

9 Mar

BONUS UPDATE: It’s the day after Budget Day, and what the heck does this mean?

The nation may be abuzz with debate about whether the chancellor’s change to National Insurance for the self-employed is retribution against the wealthy and their artificial “service companies” used to avoid tax, or an attack on the working-class independent contractor – the Sun’s beloved “White Van Man” – at a time of economic upheaval. But never mind that. By far the most pressing question of the day is: is this a flying verb?

Scarcely two days after this blog made the confident assertion that flying-verb headlines would never be seen in Britain as they used to be, decades ago, in American tabloids, up pops the Sun with something that looks an awful lot like… well, what is it?

It’s not an adjective: “spite van man” might be an acceptable pun to refer to a van-driver who has done something unpleasant or vicious, but that’s not the story here. It’s not, similarly, an imperative: the article isn’t calling for retribution, simply analysing the news.

Is the chancellor himself, in the picture, being described as the “spite van man”, perhaps? Hard to see how: he doesn’t have a van, nor is he spiting the vehicles themselves. And look at the first standfirst: “Hammond £240 raid on self-employed”. Doesn’t that tempt you to believe that the sense is “Tories spite van man” – that the subject of the sentence has been deleted, leaving the verb to fly?

Perhaps not, in fact. The likeliest explanation is that it’s a simple rhyming pun that ultimately fails to mean anything: a bit like the baffling (and much-criticised) “NOD IN MY NAME” front page the Sun ran about Jeremy Corbyn supposedly not bowing sufficiently at the Cenotaph. That was a familiar pacifist phrase with one word altered to fit the news, but not something you could actually parse for sense.

But on a day when even the Daily Star (“ROB THE BUILDER!“) is running strange, agentless Budget headlines on page 1, you’re entitled to wonder if an old headline form is lumbering improbably back to life. Who exactly is doing the robbing?

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Day 2, and I think this idea is approaching the end of its development curve.

Still, at least it’s clear that this one’s an imperative.


Is it a verb? Is it a plane?

7 Mar

Quite by chance, while trawling through the New York Daily News archives for last time’s post on baseball, I found two fine examples of one of the strangest phenomena in journalism: the “flying verb”.

When I first came across them, courtesy of Fred at HeadsUp, I found them utterly baffling. The placing of an isolated verb at the start of a sentence is an almost exclusively American phenomenon, now vanishingly rare even there. And when you see them for the first time, it’s almost impossible to parse them correctly. To me, they read automatically as imperatives, like a thunderous headline on an editorial demanding action (“Won’t someone – anyone – trap Coster’s arms dealer?”).

But in fact, they’re not imperatives, or some obscure form of passive construction; they’re even odder than that. What they are, as Fred explains, is perfectly normal subject-verb-object sentences, but with the subject of the sentence deleted. So the sense of “Seize 62 Mafia Chieftains in Upstate Raid” is “Police Seize 62 Mafia Chieftains In Upstate Raid”. Similarly, “Trap Coster’s Arms Dealer” means “Authorities Trap Coster’s Arms Dealer”.*

The construction is so alien to British eyes that you would think they would never appear over here. But in fact, a species of them does exist, in plain sight, on one of the most widely read sites in British journalism: the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame.

Indeed, alongside the very long headlines and very short standfirsts, they are one of the most distinctive features of Britain’s pre-eminent source of dispiriting online gossip. As we can see from these examples, taken from the site in a single visit, the Sidebar’s standfirsts – perhaps for lack of space if no other reason – frequently employ flying verbs (here “looked”, “got”, “added”, “opted”) to add detail to the story.

Of course, in these cases, they always follow sentences in which an agent has been clearly identified, and always seem to be in the past tense, which rules out their being read as imperatives. I don’t think British readers are ready for full flying verbs in 120-point caps on page one with no sign of a subject in sight. Write headlines no one can understand.


*Mr Coster, who made the News’s splash that day, was unknown to me, and also not the reason that that page has entered posterity (that was because of the picture story below, which is of Mayor LaGuardia** with a black eye after a confrontation in the street). But some tenuous Googling reveals that he was F Donald Coster, real name Phillip Musica, a notorious Prohibition rum-runner turned arms dealer whose criminal activities were at the centre of the McKesson & Robbins Scandal of 1938.

** After whom, of course, the airport is named.