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British subjects

31 Oct

Hot on the heels of HeadsUp’s discovery of a 1940s style guide covering flying verbs, which advises against their  use “if the verb might be understood to be in the imperative mode”, here’s a good example of an imperative and a flying verb side by side:

Seeing them in close proximity, you realise how easy it is to distinguish one form from the other when that golden rule is followed: “Hid” (clearly implied subject: third person, unknown) against “Go” (clearly implied subject: you). There is none of the confusion caused when, for example, POLICE ARREST DANGER MAN becomes ARREST DANGER MAN.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite ambitious: I’ve never before seen a flying verb headline introduce a second, explicit, subject (“we”) before clarifying who the implied one is (“him”). And the most striking thing of all is that this appeared on the BBC news website: only the second flying verb I have ever encountered in a British-English publication. The article headline itself contains an explicit subject, so the distinctively transatlantic omission on the homepage is presumably only for space reasons. But still, if the classic British existential headline* is now starting to appear in the US, as HeadsUp has observed, perhaps a full-scale cultural exchange is under way?


*Those starting FURY AS… , OUTRAGE AS… , JOY AS… , etc


Flying on holiday

9 Oct

While Ten Minutes Past Deadline is on its short break, your attention is drawn to this fantastic discovery from Fred at HeadsUp – a US newspaper manual from the 1940s that lays down chapter and verse on the use of the flying verb (sorry, “implied subject”), including warning about the risks of their being misread as imperatives, and even has advice to offer about claim quotes. Says well worth a close read. 

The France connection

3 Oct

Why is it the “Vietnam war” and the “Iraq war”, but not the “Korea war”? We always say “Korean” – the adjective, not the noun. The spoons we use in the kitchen are plastic (noun), metal (noun) or wooden (adjective). And we jokingly refer to “man flu” and “girl talk”, but, for some reason, “woman’s work”.

The use of nouns instead of adjectives – what are called “attributive nouns” – is such a common and convenient part of the language that we hardly realise we’re doing it.  Sometimes it happens because there is no suitable adjective to use: but often we do it even when there is, as Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, explains:

Not all nouns have related adjectives. “Cotton” and “fleece,” for example, are your only choices for describing a cotton shirt and fleece jacket. But when there is a related adjective you get to choose. For example, since “wool,” and “silk” have the adjective forms “woolen” and “silken,” you get to choose between the attributive noun and adjective. You can wear a silken scarf with your woolen sweater, or you can wear a silk scarf with your wool sweater. Both ways of saying it are correct.

There is no particular rhyme or reason to this: as Fogarty says, “it’s more about what sounds right to you than any logical choice”. Because English can tolerate nouns as adjectives, it appears that one phrase simply becomes preferred over another and hardens into idiom. It’s not grammatically incorrect to call it the “Iraqi war”: we just don’t. Attributive nouns are not chosen by rule, but by ear: that makes it hard to set out guidelines for their use, but also easy to hear when something’s wrong.

As it does in this paragraph, spotted by regular reader Jeff:

The “France president”?

Most reporters and editors are relaxed about nouns as adjectives, but there is one part of a newspaper where they have special significance: the sport section. In international football, for example, a careful distinction is always made between (say) a “French striker” and ” a “France striker”. The former is a forward of undetermined gifts who happens to be French; the latter is a forward who is not only French, but has been picked for the national team and played for France. The choice of the noun rather than the adjective is deliberate: it is a shorthand way of signalling the level of a player’s talent.

Although this article about the Rugby World Cup is largely a politics story, it’s written by the sports desk. And so, I suspect, the sports desk has thought: Macron’s not just a president who happens to be French; he’s the president of his country, a full international. But of course there are no club-level presidents in politics, and no presidents (pace the birthers) whose nationality differs from their country of office; so there is no distinction to be made here by way of an attributive noun. In politics, rather than in sport, they just sound wrong.

And with that, thanks to the beneficence of the Tribune’s management and the negotiating power of its highly unionised workforce, Ten Minutes Past Deadline is off for a brief sabbatical! Normal blogging service will resume at the end of the month, on what no doubt will be a wintry autumn day. (See: you can even use adjectives and attributive nouns together.)

Imperial cruiser

21 Aug

Meanwhile, in the export department at General Motors:

‘Jeez, how many litres are there in a gallon? It’s like a different language!’

‘Wait, I know what to do.’

If you’ve grown up in Britain, it’s easy to sympathise. This is a country where orange juice is sold by the litre, but speed limits are enforced in miles per hour, and where designers lay out pages in points and picas, then print them out on A3 paper. Metrication got so far but no further in the UK: although the younger generation can conceptualise a hectare slightly better than their parents, imperial measurements (especially in road and traffic law) are still institutionally embedded in British life. Measurement systems may not quite be languages, as the owner’s manual for my rented Camaro seemed to suggest, but they’re certainly a state of mind.

The Tribune’ style guide demands we change feet into metres, but not miles into kilometres: the metre and the yard are deemed to be close enough not to require conversion. We use litres, but obviously not for pints of beer; we use tonnes rather than tons, but obviously not when the sense is metaphorical (and not in relation to shipping).

If only doing conversions was as easy as playing around with the switchable speedometer on the Camaro made it look.

Future descriptive

7 Aug


To: All editorial staff

From the production editor


Dear all

Several of you have been asking for a definitive style ruling in recent weeks about the now-perennial “cannot be underestimated/cannot be overestimated” debate. I know feelings have run high on the issue, and until now we have tried to preserve the traditional distinction in meaning in our pages, even though the interchangeability between the two phrases in spoken English is now almost total.

Historically, it is true that – as recently as the early 21st century – the correct use of the phrases was highly dependent on context, and to say then that the prime minister’s intellectual capacity “cannot be underestimated”, when the opposite was meant, would have been to cause considerable offence. But the error has now become such a common one that it is time to seriously address the question of whether it is an error at all.

Of course I am aware, as some of you have kindly pointed out, that under and over “mean completely opposite things” and that the distinction is “perfectly obvious to those who are prepared to think about it”. Of course it is, but the everyday rough-and-tumble of language has a way of wearing fine distinctions – even useful ones like these – smooth. Look, for example, at how the similar (and now vanishing) terms “biennial” and “biannual” became so confused in the 1900s that the following definition once appeared in Chambers’s 20th Century Dictionary:

biannual (bi-an’-ū-əl) adj. two-yearly: also half-yearly.

And consider “head over heels” – a phrase universally understood in its metaphorical sense, but which, parsed logically, says the exact opposite of what it means.

I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that “cannot be over/underestimated” have, through widespread usage, fallen into the same category of phrase as “head over heels”: those that can only be understood in the round, and not by parsing very word individually.

I am aware this decision will disappoint many of you, especially those of you who have pointed me to a significant strand of linguistics scholarship that disagrees with me. Writing in the early 2000s, eminent figures on the influential website Language Log contended against the acceptability of what was then called “misnegation”. Comparing “cannot be underestimated” in relation to the (now-uncontroversial) phrase “could care less”, Professor Mark Liberman wrote:

I’ve argued that “could care less”, where modality and scalar predication seem similarly to point in the wrong direction, has simply become an idiom. Shouldn’t the same be said for “cannot underestimate the importance”?

I don’t think so. As I’ve argued before, there’s a crucial difference.

Whatever is happening with “cannot underestimate” applies equally to “cannot understate”, “impossible to underestimate/understate”, “hard to underestimate/understate”, “difficult to underestimate/understate”, “cannot be underestimated/understated”, “hard to underrate”, “cannot be undervalued”, and many other common ways to re-express the same idea.

In contrast, alternative formulations of “could care less” are rare, and can only be understood as bad jokes, to the extent that they’re not simply puzzling.  Thus one semantic equivalent to “could not care less” might be “could not possibly have less concern” — and we find this in a published translation of Montaigne…

“However, if my descendants have other tastes, I shall have ample means for revenge: for they could not possibly have less concern about me than I shall have about them by that time.”

But in this case, Montaigne means to imply that his concern-meter will be pegged at zero, not at its maximum value. And more generally, we don’t see things like “I could possibly have less concern” used with the meaning idiomatically assigned to “I could care less”. This is the behavior that we expect from an idiom; and the different behavior of “cannot underestimate/understate/
underrate/undervalue” is what we expect from a psychologically probable error.

Other scholars at the time contended that “cannot be under/overestimated” was indeed an idiom; but even if they and I are wrong and it is a mistake, it seems to be a mistake that English-speakers are never going to stop making. And, as we all know to our frustration, appeals to reason over usage rarely succeed in these matters because language doesn’t listen to reason.

Therefore, henceforward,  “should not be underestimated” and “should not be overestimated” shall in all cases be deemed to be equally correct ways of saying the same thing, which is something to the effect of “should not be evaluated incorrectly”. The style guide will be updated accordingly.

Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to come to this conclusion. But our language has changed around us: and with the 22nd century just over a decade away, we have better and more significant things to do with our editorial resources than enforcing a distinction that, to our readers, is increasingly becoming inaudible.

Yours as ever



Production editor, the Tribune

Highland flying

27 Jun

Saw woman kiss love rival, thrown out of party, stole lighter fluid from a fire eater, set fire to home* – and then became subject of actual, genuine flying-verb headline! Because, we discover, it was a “north-east man”, not mentioned in the display type, who committed all these acts, but who has been omitted from the headline to leave the verb exposed as though the Aberdeen Press & Journal were a 1958 edition of the New York Daily News.

This is a first as far as Ten Minutes Past Deadline is concerned: I’ve never seen a real flying-verb headline in a British publication before. (I don’t really count those punchy three-word standfirsts on the Daily Mail website, which have already had the subject introduced in the main hed, or the Sun’s hard-to-parse front-page puns.) Inspection of the Press & Journal homepage suggests it’s a one-off even there: its broad mix of coverage, from Trump analysis pieces to local tuba competitions, seems otherwise headlined in conventional declarative terms.

Admittedly this isn’t the baffling present-tense flying verb beloved of the Daily News, which always reads like a command; here the past tense encourages you to infer some kind of actor as the subject, even if you don’t know exactly who. (Although shouldn’t it really be “got thrown out of party”?) Nonetheless, it’s a fine and unambiguous example of the type from a highly respectable source: even if it was blown across the Atlantic by accident, it looks like the flying verb has landed.


*Actually, “set fire to windowsill” might be more accurate

Semi articulated

30 May

Kurt Vonnegut rejected them; the Tribune’s sports section used to ban them; George Orwell thought they were unnecessary. But the New York Times likes semicolons so much that it even uses them in headlines.

Or at least it does when it is making one of its distinctive attempts to write three or four headlines above the same story, like this:

This style only ever appears on the biggest stories, where almost every paragraph of the text is worth a headline, but it’s still an impressively literate thing to see in 60-point capitals when there is so much antipathy towards semicolons in some quarters. Vonnegut famously called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”; Orwell thought they were “an unnecessary stop” and wrote a novel without them to prove it; the Tribune’s esteemed former sports editor, The Gaffer, insisted that they could all be replaced with full stops or commas, according to context.

And that is true, to a certain extent: if you adopt the “safety rule” with semicolons, which is to ensure that both the clauses on either side of it are independent – as a rule of thumb, that both are complete sentences in their own right* – then they can be replaced by a period in all cases. Except that then you lose the nuance that the New York Times headlines exemplify so well: the signal the semicolon sends that a second thought connected to the first one is about to follow. If you had four sentences ending in full stops, any one of them might mark the end of the discussion; the semicolon indicates that the subject remains open. It creates an expectation of more, in a similar way as the colon, in Fowler’s words, “delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words”.

By way of total contrast, here is one of the New York Times’s other ambitious headline innovations: the split-splash front page.

Here again there is more than one headline at the top of the page, but this time there’s no relation between them at all: they are about two completely different stories that the paper is giving joint top billing. In the unusual visual grammar of NYT layout, the lead story usually runs in the sixth column**: so the top headline, ranged left, relates to the story on the right of the page, and the bottom headline, ranged right, relates to the five columns to the left. Both the headlines are set in the same type at the same size, so it will take a lot more than mere punctuation to separate them; you might argue that even the long horizontal rule between the headlines is barely doing enough. At any event, it’s hardly the place for a semicolon.


*At first sight, this would appear not to be the case in two of the pictured examples, “Flies 1,000 miles…” and “Collect rocks…”, which appear to be awkward dependent clauses without subjects. But I suspect – given their vintage and the fact that they follow a subject introduced in the first headline – that they are both examples of the glorious flying verb.

** Confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by this behind-the-scenes piece about a hasty front-page redesign.