Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

11 Responses to “The Gadhafi Bounty”

  1. Yepyep said

    great article about analyzing a somewhat vague headline, ahahhaha! very helpful website.

  2. Laurie said

    This is a typical ambiguity for a newspaper headline. I frequently want to call our local small-town newspaper and ask them if they have a staff of chimps working as copywriters.

  3. Ellen said

    Fun post, especially since it was my first look at “McDonald’s fries holy grail …” That’s priceless.

  4. Mar Rojo said

    To me, the existence of ambiguity in that headline would depend on the reader knowing very little about the situation in Libya. For those who are up to speed on current events, I doubt the headline would be read as anything more than the intended meaning. Encyclopaedic knowledge plays a great part in this, but I suspect a little pedantry is behind Neil’s intent in posting this. Right, Neil?

    • Ellen K. said

      No, real world knowledge doesn’t prevent us from misreading it. Rather, it makes us realize it’s a misreading and thus reparse it, as noted in the original post: “Real-world knowledge forced a re-read…”

      • StuartD said

        I can’t agree Ellen. I would not have misread it and I truly doubt that most people would. Many people simply don’t realise just how much of the language they use is ambiguous. The linguistic study of Pragmatics is about how the transmission of meaning depends not only on a knowledge of grammar and vocabulary but on context, the nature and status of the speaker or writer, their inferred intention, and so on. Of course the manner, time, and place of the message is important too.

        If Neal is not being pedantic he needs to work on his pragmatic competence. 😉

      • the ridger said

        I agree with Ellen. This is a very common phenomenon: “they CAN’T mean that!” So you (we?) don’t “really” misread it, in the sense that you stay misled, but it does take a moment to comprehend.

    • StuartD said

      Well, I’m not convinced about that, Ridger. I suspect that whether it takes a moment to comprehend may depend on circumstances — how alert we are, how much we are paying attention, how closely we have been following the story. That it is ambiguous may stand out or may be something we take in at scarcely more than a subconscious level. And as mentioned by someone else such ambiguity is typical of headlines. And I don’t think rubbishing the journos who write them is wise unless you have had to write them yourself. It is probably not easy to avoid ambiguity in the space available for most headlines; and as you said yourself, if its being syntactically ambiguous makes it grab the eye, it has achieved its purpose. I suspect that many newspapers would prefer a silly eye-catching hed to a sensible one nobody notices.

      • Neal said

        Actually, I have had to write headlines. I spent a semester or two as a copy editor at The Daily Texan at the University of Texas, and writing headlines of just the right length is hard. I don’t think you’ll find anything in this post that is “rubbishing the journos.” I just showed the two ways of parsing the phrase, and told how for a second, I got the wrong one, which was indeed what happened (the scenario Ellen and the Ridger describe).

      • The Ridger said

        I’m not rubbishing anybody. Much of the time I think the hed is deliberately – often brilliantly – written just to provoke that reaction, which will make you start to read the story.

  5. The Ridger said

    It’s not genuinely ambiguous in a real world, because you can reparse it very quickly if you know who the players are. But it IS syntactically ambiguous, and it therefore grabs your eye harder than a clearer hed would – thus achieving one purpose of heds: to make your read the story (buy the paper, in the old days).

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