Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Man Accused of Assaulting Officer, K9 Indicted

Posted by Neal on February 18, 2013

My wife showed me a nice crash blossom yesterday. It went like this:

The dog's taking the fall

Mentally filling in the usual missing pieces of headline syntax, I arrived at this interpretation:

A Delaware County man is accused of assaulting an officer and a K9 has been indicted.

My wife and I agreed that that really sucked for the dog, who was taking the heat for that Delaware County man’s misdeed.

Of course, here is the intended reading, with slightly different missing pieces restored:

A Delaware County man who has been accused of assaulting an officer and a K9 has been indicted.

This crash blossom was made possible by two of the usual culprits in headline ambiguity. First, there’s the copula omission (i.e. omission of forms of be). In ordinary language, man accused of assaulting an officer wouldn’t be ambiguous; it would just be a noun, man, modified by an adjectival passive phrase, accused of assaulting an officer. Or, if you want, a “reduced relative clause”: who has been accused…. But because headlines leave out the copula, we’ve been trained to turn phrases like this into full clauses by inserting is or has been. Of course, that’s exactly what does have to happen for indicted: We have to supply our own is or has been, but being led to do the same thing for man accused paves the way for the second part of the misunderstanding.

The second part is based on the replacement of and with a comma. If the headline had read Delaware County man accused of assaulting officer and K9 indicted, the easiest parse would have been the correct one, in which and joins just officer and K9 as the objects of assaulting. Instead, the comma made the easiest parse the one in which we have two entire clauses, with K9 as the subject of the second one.

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5 Responses to “Man Accused of Assaulting Officer, K9 Indicted”

  1. the ridger said

    I’ve seen that kind of thing before, and usually with someone killing a person and a dog…. Hmmm.

  2. EP said

    That reminds me of something I saw the other day: “Goats cheese salad ingredients: lettuce, tomato, goats, cheese”

  3. Things I learned today: that there exists, in this world, at least one country in which at least one newspaper has on at least one occasion abbreviated “canine” to “K9″ in a headline referring to a non-robotic dog. *bemused headshake*

  4. Eugene said

    Dog bites man, owner arrested: not news.
    Man shoots policeman, dog arrested: news.
    Using a comma rather than the conjunction saved two spaces, but it looks like there was half a line left blank.

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