Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Long headline sends daft linguist into parsing fit

AP headline:

Embarrassing record spurs Redskins hope to improve takeaways

Is "Redskins" the object of "spurs"? It can't be because the verb "hope" right after a noun puts "Redskins" two incompatible roles.

Unless "hope" isn't a verb. So if "hope" is a noun we reanalyze "Redskins" as a modifying possessive because it is their hope. But then where's the apostrophe? So it's not possessive. It's just a hope that is characterized as pertaining to the team. Maybe a neutralized form that with other nouns could take an -an or -ian ending. American hope. Canadian hope. Newtonian hope.

The -an/-ian ending isn't necessary with the names of sports teams. Yankee fever. Celtic pride. Red Wing championship.

But we commonly see the plural form made singular in such cases. Is there something wrong with "Redskin hope"?

And why is "hope" necessary? Maybe Embarrassing record spurs Redskins to improve takeaways implies that they succeeded. And at this point we have no reason to think they will succeed. They only hope to.

Obviously keeping the headline short was not the primary constraint. They violated that one right off the bat. I would have though fatally but...no. It almost looks like they wanted a long headline. So how about

Embarrassed by record Redskins look to improve takeaways
Embarrassed Redskins hope to improve takeaways next season


  1. Let's be grateful the copy editor didn't follow traditional headline-style capitalization rules. Then we'd have had:

    Embarrassing Record Spurs Redskins Hope to Improve Takeaways

    Spurs? From San Antonio? Wait ... don't they play a different sport than the Redskins?

  2. And still--that split second before I noticed "Redskins" the San Antonio team passed before my mind's eye.

  3. What about a comma or colon after spurs? It is a bit fragmented, but hope can't improve anything tangible like takeaways. It should be a verb not a noun.

  4. That introduces another problem that I had chosen to ignore. How would they improve their takeaways? Make them quicker? Make them more graceful?

    They're really hoping to improve the number of takeaways by raising it right? Well that's the type of precision that headlines don't have the space to achieve. And at least that part's clear enough to get a pass right?

  5. I had no issue with this headline at all, and that's without any knowledge of the Redskins, the embarrassing records, whatever 'takeaways' are, or indeed anything to do with baseball at all (it's like a children's version of cricket, I reckon). But I knew Redskins were a team, and I read it as a possessive, to be honest I didn't realise about the missing apostrophe.

  6. I'm with Jangari here: The headline didn't trigger any reaction. It's cumbersome, for sure, but I didn't have trouble reading it. Jangari's ability to do it without background on American football is impressive, though -- this is way harder than colorless green ideas.

    But to your question "Is there something wrong with 'Redskin hope'?" Yes. Spend a little time around American Indians and you'll never hear this team name the same way again. When Wisconsin plays the North Dakota Fighting Sioux in ice hockey, Badger fans chant 'racist mascot' over and over during the game -- I can hear it now just reading 'Redskins'. Most journalists are surely aware of that issue. Leaving off the -s really brings the racist slur to the fore, for me at least.

  7. Really? No problem at all understanding it? You are both much quicker on this than I am. It took me at least 3 readings before I could figure out what it meant. Maybe 4.

    Mr Verb: The issue of the racist team name did not escape me. I was going to attack the name in the title of the post but I chose to play the cowardly Pilate and make no accusation.

    I hadn't sensed that losing the -s highlighted the insensitivity of the name. But now that you mention it of course I see that it does. At least 2 reasons:

    1) The team name has the -s. Take it away and the word 'redskin' is divorced from the name. It's no longer "just" a mascot or a name. It's thrown into use as if 'redskin' is an acceptable adjective or noun.

    2) Because you said it does. Your reaction is proof of the effect on at least one hearer. And it's a rational enough reading to trust that it's not isolated.


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