Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dog Shoots Man?

Posted by Neal on May 14, 2006

I was watching the local news last night, when the anchor said,

And now a tragic story, a Labrador retriever gunned down and killed…

Just as I was wondering how on earth a Labrador retriever had managed to hold a gun and pull the trigger, the anchor finished:

… by a burglar.

Aargh! Would it have been too much to ask for the writers to put in a was? Why did they leave it out, anyway? Is the intent to have the newscasters sound like newspaper headlines? No. In fact, if the anchor had been speaking headline-ese, the sentence would have been easier to understand. The anchor would have started out with, “Labrador retriever gunned down, killed”, and I would have known immediately by the absence of an article before Labrador retriever that I was dealing with headline-ese, and should be prepared to insert articles, conjunctions, and forms of be wherever necessary. What is with this strange kind of newscaster English?

Geoff Nunberg tries unsuccessfully to find an answer in an essay titled “I Seeing the News Today, Oh Boy” in his book Going Nucular. He names the style Inglish, after all the -ing participial forms that appear in the active sentences. One of his examples: “In North Dakota, high winds making life difficult; the gusts reaching 60 mph.”

Nunberg’s characterization of Inglish is that it “leaves out … all tenses, past, present, or future, and with them any helping verbs that they happen to fall on–not just be, but have and will.” However, he notes that “The odd thing is that not even the newscasters seem to have a clear idea of what they’re doing, or why.” He cites newscasters as characterizing the style as omitting most verbs (which it doesn’t), or as a brief, clipped style imitating headlines (which it isn’t, as noted above; it leaves in articles and conjunctions). And on the question of why, one newscaster says, “It’s about how I would tell this story if I were telling it to a friend on a street corner.” Nunberg doesn’t believe the newscaster actually speaks this way to his friends, and neither do I. If any of you have newscaster friends, tell me: Do they talk this way to you?

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3 Responses to “Dog Shoots Man?”

  1. [...] to the newscasting style that Geoff Nunberg calls “Inglish”. (1) Hale says it doesn’t have verbs, but it does! They’re all [...]

  2. Oh this is so true!!!! I hate hate hate reading English newspapers, especially the headlines, because nothing is happening… there are just things and descriptive words and for my German brain this is sooooo hard to understand and I often can’t quite grasp how the sentence is structured and where which constituent ends. So it is great to see that it not just me but that it is a different type of English after all.

    • Clear opportunity missed by commentator. Second comment required.
      Reading English newspapers disliked by random German guy for lack of indicative verb forms. Brain struggling with understanding constituent borders. Random German guy relieved after finding out about existence of similar resentments on the part of native English speakers.

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