Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

He Chased Down and Killed Himself

Posted by Neal on September 13, 2010

Ben Zimmer alerted me to this headline featured in a post on Headsup: The Blog:

Ben wondered if this might be another example of a right-node wrapping, along the lines of Take and put this away (i.e. “take this and put it away”), or flipped and tore an SUV in half (i.e. “flipped an SUV and tore it in half”).

The headline is definitely weird, but not weird in the right way to be an RNW. Readers will doubtless recall that an RNW typically features a coordination of two or more verbs, sharing a single direct object, with the complication that the last verb is a phrasal transitive verb that wraps around its direct object (e.g. put away, tear in half). This headline looks tantalizingly like an RNW at a first pass, because it almost contains the necessary ingredients. It has a pair of coordinated verbs, one of them an ordinary transitive (kills), and the other a phrasal transitive verb (chase down); it also has a shared direct object for these verbs: 5. In fact, we could make a nice, if nonsensical, RNW out of these ingredients: kills (and) chases 5 down. (I guess it could make sense if someone came and snatched the dead bodies, and the was trying to get them back.)

However, these verbs and their direct object are strung together in a perfectly ordinary English way: chases down (and) kills 5. The weirdness comes in when the headline doesn’t end there, but goes on to say then himself. This could still be an ordinary, if complicated coordination, one involving coordinated verbs and coordinated direct objects. Syntactically, it could be just like

I edited and published a blog post, then a podcast episode.

Multiplying out the two verbs and two direct objects, we end up with four events: editing a blog post, publishing that same blog post, editing a podcast episode, publishing that same podcast episode. Doing the same thing with the headline, we again end up with four events: chasing down five people, killing them, chasing down himself, killing himself. (If we could read the original article, it probably said that the guy “turned the gun on himself“.) It’s at that third event that things break down.

Assuming that the headline writer actually meant, “chases down five people, kills them, then kills himself”, this is some weird syntax, and at this point I think it’s probably an error. Given a chance to rewrite it, the copy editor would probably rephrase. On the other hand, it’s just possible that this is part of someone’s grammar; that is, they would see no problem with it even when prompted to take a second look. If I see coordinations like this again, I’ll have to wonder about that possibility. I know the people at Headsup found it ungrammatical, as did I; how about you?

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12 Responses to “He Chased Down and Killed Himself”

  1. Glen said

    Once the first comma is replaced with ‘and’ to remove journalese, this one actually bothers me less than most genuine RNW’s. Probably because the implicit verb in ‘then himself’ is the second verb in the coordination.

  2. Barrie said

    The headline is unsuccessfully trying to yank together two sentences, each in itself legitimate:

    1. ‘Man chases down and kills, 5.’
    2. ‘Man kills 5, then himself.’

    It’s ‘chases down’ that creates a problem, because however adroit the killer might have been, it’s hard to see how he could chase down himself. That is what we have to suppose he has done if we accept the RNW of (1). ‘5’ is the object of both ‘chases down’ and ‘kills’ and the implication is that ‘himself’ is the object of both as well.

    Whatever we make of it grammatically, it is clearly an unsatisfactory headline if we have to read it more than once to understand it.

  3. Jonathon said

    Yeah, it’s definitely ungrammatical to me too. As Barrie says, it’s a mash-up of two sentences that don’t quite fit together. The closest grammatical version I can come up with is “Man chases down, kills 5, then kills self”, but that adds three characters to what is already a tight headline.

  4. Ellen K. said

    I think, as headlinese goes, it’s fine.

    Changing it into non-headline English, I get:

    A man chased down and killed 5 people, and then himself.

    And that’s fine for me too.

    • Barrie said

      That still leaves us with the awkward suggestion that he might have chased down himself.

      • Ellen K. said

        Barrie, for me, it doesn’t read that way. Perhaps because, well, killing others and then oneself is something we hear about commonly on the news, thus making it, for me, the natural reading. Plus, of course, one can’t chase down onself. But I think for me, it’s first and foremost, that killing others and oneself is so much the expected, that it’s the natural reading, for me. So I don’t have to filter out the wrong reading.

        It could be the same for the headline writer. Perhaps for him, like for me, the idea of killing others, then oneself is so salient, that it didn’t occur to him to read it another way.

  5. Estel said

    I heard an interesting coordination yesterday and thought I’d pass it on to you. A friend said, referring to cribbage and what she remembered of it from childhood:

    “All I know is that’s the game the grownups drink beer and play”.

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