Tag Archives: verbs

She covers the waterfront

17 Sep

We appear to have another case of that strange phenomenon, Ambitious Tabloid Verbing. Last time, we had “to marvel” meaning “to look marvellous” (“Elizabeth Olsen marvels in button-down maxi red dress at Comic-Con”). Now we have “to cover” meaning – apparently – “to be on the cover” (that is, of a magazine).

It’s in the Mail, of course:

This is not one of those “implied object” verbs that the Mail also loves (“Gwyneth stuns in taffeta dress” meaning “Gwyneth stuns onlookers in taffeta dress”). Nor is it an example of what are called unaccusative verbs – for example, “shimmer” – which lack an object of any kind and describe an involuntary state of the subject. (Indeed, “cover” in this new usage gives the impression of being transitive.)

In a sense, as described by Ben Zimmer in the New York Times, this is a denominal verb – that is, a noun turned into a verb. Just as, in sport, to win a medal has become “to medal” and to get on the podium has become “to podium”, here “to be on the cover” has become “to cover”. That perhaps makes it less ambitious than “marvel”, which was a verb created out of an adjective: many denominal verbs, although formally frowned upon, are easily understood.

But here “cover”, like “marvel”, does lead you astray. In both cases, a more natural sentence expressing the same thought might contain a stative verb, or verb of being: “She looks marvellous”; “she is on the cover”.  But these stative verbs have been replaced with dynamic verbs, or verbs of doing, which have the effect of spuriously increasing the sense of the subject’s agency, and send you hunting through the sentence in search of an object (or, to use a more grammatically precise term, a “patient” – that is, the thing on which the agent acts). In last time’s example, you were led to think that Olsen was “marvelling … at Comic-Con” – in other words, that the convention was the object of the intransitive verb “to marvel (at)”. In these new examples, “covers” in every case creates a slightly baffling direct object out of the magazine in question (“Zendaya covers the new issue”) in a way that makes you think the models might in some way be acting as reporters.

To be fair to the Mail, it hasn’t invented this usage. It has appeared before, largely in the fashion press, and the briefest Google search uncovers examples going back several years.

But my copy of Collins indicates that “cover”, as a verb, already has 23 meanings. I rather hope this doesn’t become the 24th. Unlike many of my fellow prescriptivist enforcers, I don’t necessarily believe that verbing weirds language. But constructions as ambitious as this certainly do.


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.

Twenty-two dropouts

7 Feb


It’s good to hear that Scotland will be supporting Mr O’Halloran despite his ailments. Oh no, wait. Ahaha: a laughable misunderstanding. Not “backs” as a third-person singular verb, but “backs” as an adjective, modifying “coach”. Now the sentence parses correctly: it did seem to be in want of a comma otherwise.

This is actually a bit of a hazard in rugby headlines: the number of nouns there are in the sport that can also be read as verbs. It must get tricky at times for sports subs working in tight measures. Not just “back”, but “forward” too: and “centre”, “prop”, “wing”, “maul”, “restart”  … There are probably others too, but I can’t immediately think of them.


Wow, George must have really infuriated the management this time.