WTF? headline omission

The original datum, from the SF Peninsula Daily Post for the April 30th weekend, on p. 1, printed here as a single line (rather than broken into three lines):

(1) Guard posted at crossing where woman killed

intended to convey something like

(1a) A guard has been posted at the crossing where a woman was killed

— where the omission in (1) of the underlined form of BE (in a subordinate passive clause) gave me an extended WTF? moment. Looking at parallel examples didn’t make me any happier. Maybe there are those for whom (1) and similar examples are unproblematic, but there is variation from speaker to speaker in all things, and in this case, (1) and its kin are problematic for me. Now, some background, then back to (1).

The register of newspaper headlines in English is well-known for its “telegraphic” character, the wide-ranging ability accorded to headline writers to omit certain material that can (in principle) be supplied from context: articles and forms of the copular verb BE, in particular. Observations:

– Headline writing embraces a number of practices and preferences beyond omission, for example, the widespread use of N + N compounds (another abbreviatory practice) and a preference for certain vocabulary items rarely used outside of headlines, but convenient for use in them.

– Headline omission greatly expands the opportunities for ambiguous and garden-path expressions. (Clarity is often the victim of brevity.)

– Headline omission is both systematic and limited. Not everything goes; there are principles.

– There’s some variation in these principles from one publication to another (and sometimes, from one section of a publication to another).

Back to (1), which has (for everybody, so far as I know) the reading:

(1b) A guard has been posted at the crossing where a woman killed someone

This is Indefinite Object Omission, a general phenomenon in English that has nothing to do with headlines. If you have reading (1a) for (1), then (1) is in principle ambiguous, in part because of the identity of PSP killed in (1a) and PST killed in (1b). For me, (1) has only the reading (1b).

I’ll come back to this PSP / PST issue later, but first there are bigger fish to fry.

First thing: auxiliary BE in passive clauses is freely omissible in main clauses in headlines, in things like

(2) Woman killed at unguarded crossing ‘A woman was / is / has been killed at an unguarded crossing’

A problem arises only in subordinate clauses, and there it sees to be quite general (for people like me). In (1) we have a relative clause modifying a crossing, but my judgments are the same for passive adverbial subordinate clauses:

(3) ??Guard (is) posted where woman killed ??Where woman killed, guard is posted

(4) ??Candidate left when/before/after staff member murdered

(If you get reading (1a) for (1), then these should be unproblematic for you.)

The examples in (3) and (4) are fine for me as instances of Indefinite Object Omission, so you might suggest that the Indefinite Object Omission reading is just more accessible than the passive reading — that people like me really allow both readings, but prefer the Indefinite Object Omission readings,

But no. Consider verbs like locate and destroy that don’t allow Indefinite Object Omission (*Kim located / destroyed). For them, there’s no competition between Indefinite Object Omission and headline omission of BE, so they ought to be fine with headline omission of passive BE in subordinate clauses, but I find them dreadful:

??Guards (are) posted where dangerous crossings located

??Precious information (was) lost when records destroyed

Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Now, the subtlety. People who are fine with headline omission of passive BE in subordinate clauses ought to accept, not only such a reading in examples like (1) — where the main verb in the subordinate clause is a regular verb like killed, which can be PSP (in the passive) as well as PST (in Indefinite Object Omission) — but also in examples with irregular verbs that have a PSP distinct from the PST:

??Delegates meet where treaty broken

??Partygoers abandon event when all food eaten

My judgments again. As before, YMMV.

Finally, I note that headline omission of passive BE is also problematic in yet another class of subordinate clause constructions, namely interrogative clauses:

??Prosecutors ask when Kenya files released ‘Prosecutors ask / are asking when the / certain Kenya files were released’

??Squirrels know where nuts hidden ‘Squirrels know where (their) nuts are hidden’

??Investigators wondered how secret meetings concealed ‘Investigators (have) wondered how the secret meetings were concealed’

It would be nice to have more examples like (1), with headline omission of a form of BE in a passive subordinate clause. But then I just started noticing the phenomenon this morning.


2 Responses to “WTF? headline omission”

  1. Éamonn McManus Says:

    I’ve noticed that the headline writing style is somewhat different in American newspapers compared with British and Irish ones. Having grown up with the latter, I find pretty much all of your examples completely understandable and unsurprising. That’s as newspaper headlines, of course, where I’m primed to decipher the conventions. In particular, my immediate reading of your (1) was (1a) and I was actually somewhat taken aback by (1b).

  2. Andy Sleeper Says:

    You are not asking for a survey here, which would surely be biased, but I too favor (1a) as the initial, most likely interpretation.

    But my mind immediately looks for humorous misinterpretations of the omitted words. What kind of crossing is this? I presume a railroad crossing, but perhaps a deer crossing, where a deer and a woman engaged in mortal combat. Here, the outcome could go either way.

    And why was the guard posting when he should be guarding? Was he posting to Instagram? Snapchat? Bad guard.

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