The Gadhafi Bounty
Posted by Neal on August 28, 2011
I read the front page of the Columbus Dispatch earlier this week, and saw this headline:
I thought, they’re offering the guy a bounty? That is, I read it as diagrammed on the right. I saw the verb offer, and automatically seized the name that followed as the recipient of the offer (in syntactic terms the indirect object). The noun after that was the item offered (i.e. the direct object). This parse was also easy to fall into because of the line break, putting Gadhafi all by itself next to offer.
Real-world knowledge forced a re-read, and I quickly got the intended reading, as diagrammed on the left. Instead of taking offer as a two-object verb (direct and indirect), this time I took it as a simple transitive verb, and grabbed onto Gadhafi bounty as a single noun phrase for the direct object: “a bounty on Gadhafi”. Much more sensible, although it required a little more thinking to make Gadhafi an attributive noun describing bounty.
Of course, like McDonald’s fries holy grail for potato farmers, this ambiguity exists only because of the telegraphic style of newspaper headlines. In regular English, it would have been
The rebels offered A Gadhafi bounty
and there would have been no question. Or, if you really meant it the crazy way, it would be
The rebels offered Gadhafi A bounty.
Of course, if Gadhafi turns himself in to collect the bounty, I guess both readings could be true.