Posted by Neal on September 23, 2009
Larry Horn sent a message to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list this morning, with the following headline that a colleague had brought to his attention:
McDonald’s fries holy grail for potato farmers
I showed it to Doug, who was home with a fever, and he and I laughed and laughed over McDonald’s having found, and fried, this holiest of artifacts.
Not too long afterward, Ben Zimmer posted a message thanking Larry and noted the headline over at Language Log, where several of the comments have brought out exactly what properties of English, and in particular headline-ese, made this ambiguity possible. If you want, you can read through the (at time of this writing) 20 comments there and get the same information as you’re going to get here, but I’m going to write it up anyway, with all the contributing properties discussed in a single place.
The first property is simply that fry can be either a noun or a verb. The ambiguity disappears if we replace fries with something that is (mostly) unambiguously a noun, or unambiguously a verb:
McDonald’s pies holy grail for apple farmers.
McDonald’s finds holy grail for crusading knights.
The second property is that English morphology is so impoverished that the same suffix, -s, is the third-person present-tense suffix on verbs and the plural marker on regular nouns (and the singular possessive marker, too, but that’s not important here). If instead of fries you use a past-tense verb, or a singular noun, the ambiguity again disappears:
McDonald’s fried holy grail for potato farmers.
McDonald’s Big Mac holy grail for potato farmers.
Third is the fact that the possessive form of proper names is often used as a proper name itself, meaning the establishment owned, founded, or named after the person. If I used a singular common noun instead of the proper noun McDonald, then the possessive form would need a(nother) noun to go with it, and fries would have to be that noun. It couldn’t be a verb anymore, and the ambiguity would once again disappear:
Best friend’s fries holy grail for potato farmers.
And finally, there’s the regular omission of the linking verb be in English headlines, and the regular use of the present tense for events that happened in the past news cycle. Phrased in ordinary English, the two meanings would be expressed differently from each other:
McDonald’s fries are the holy grail for potato farmers.
McDonald’s fried the holy grail for potato farmers.
Wow, that’s not just two McDonald’s-related posts in one month, it’s two McDonald’s-fries related posts in one month, and I don’t even like French fries all that much.
This entry was posted on September 23, 2009 at 10:11 pm and is filed under Ambiguity, Food-related, Morphology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.