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.

12 Responses to “Is it a verb? Is it a plane?”

  1. Steve Dunham March 8, 2017 at 2:23 pm #

    I haven’t seen this curious construction in U.S. papers, I’m happy to say, but I do see something similar on signs marking the end of construction zones: “End road work.” I always mentally answer, “I’ll try.” In this case, though, “end” is a noun, as in “End of road work.” There’s always plenty of room for the word “of,” but maybe somebody is saving money on paint.

    • edlatham March 8, 2017 at 3:49 pm #

      I’m going to think of all such signs as flying verbs now!


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