Another headline posting

This is a subtle one. The headline (New Scientist, 2 May, p. 11):

Gene discovery
may be common
cause of autism

My first reading of the compound noun gene discovery is that discovery is an abstract noun, referring to an event (in which some gene, or possibly genes, is discovered, though in other cases N + discovery could refer to an event of discovered by N(s), as in a University of Chicago discovery; there are both “object” and “subject” readings of compounds with abstract nominal heads).

But it’s ridiculous to asset that an even of discovery is the cause of any condition. Something like “The discovery of genes at the University of Chicago may be a common cause of autism” is, at least at first, puzzling. (Ok, here’s a science-fiction scenario to write about.) Instead, N + discovery is intended to refer to the thing discovered about (in this case), or by (in other cases) N. This reading is available in the New Scientist headline, but it takes a little work to get to it.

You see the headline writer’s dilemma. The writer was given a very small space to produce a head, and the obvious “Recently/Newly discovered gene may be common cause of autism” won’t fit. “Newly found gene” might have fit, but give the headline writer a break.

5 Responses to “Another headline posting”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    I can’t make that mean that.

    “Discovered gene” is what I’d have said.

  2. Jonathan Lundell Says:

    Seems to me that “New gene may be common cause of autism” would have sufficed. There’s an ambiguity, of course (newly evolved vs newly discovered), but it’s within the normal ambiguity bounds of headlines.

  3. Gavin MacDonald Says:

    What’s wrong with “Gene discovered may be common cause of autism”? Sure it’s one additional letter, but is it really such a dilemma? I must be missing something. Actually, I’d prefer leaving out “discovery/ed” completely; the important thing here is that they seem to have been able to link autism to a gene, not necessarily that there was a gene discovery.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Gavin MacDonald: “the important thing here is that they seem to have been able to link autism to a gene, not necessarily that there was a gene discovery.”

    It’s more complicated than that. According to the story, previous studies had implicated several genes in autism, but these genes are very rare and account for only a tiny percentage of the cases. The newly discovered gene might account for up to 15 percent of the cases, so its discovery is news. (Well, you could argue about whether 15 percent counts as “common”.)

  5. jlundell Says:

    “Gene linked to autism”. How much work does a headline really have to do, after all? Save it for the lede.

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