by zombies

‘University student offered cash for sex’
Taylor Swift sent death threats’

Headlinese’ is a specialised and constrained form of English, designed to communicate the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of space, even in online editions. One technique is to omit auxiliary verbs. The reconstructed versions of the headlines above (recently on the Sydney Morning Herald website) are ‘A university student was offered cash for sex’ (or ‘has been offered’) and ‘Taylor Swift was sent death threats’ (or ‘has been sent’); that is, past simple passive and present perfect passive – someone else  offered the university student cash for sex and someone else sent Taylor Swift death threats. Maybe they know who, maybe they don’t.

In standard English grammar, ‘A university student offered cash for sex’ and ‘Taylor Swift sent death threats’ can only be past simple active – the student did it and Ms Swift did it. But headlinese also uses present simple instead of past simple; if the student and Ms Swift had done it, the headlines would be ‘University student offers cash for sex’ and ‘Taylor Swift sends death threats’. But then the ambiguity is between a present simple interpretation (‘A university student offers cash for sex on a regular basis’ and ‘Taylor Swift sends death threats on a regular basis’) and a past simple interpretation (‘A university student offered cash for sex (once or more times)’ and ‘Taylor Swift sent death threats (once or more times)’).

Online headlines and story summaries are designed to induce readers to click through to the full story. Absent in either of the stories above is any mention of who did it. If we really want to know (and I don’t really), we have to click though (and I didn’t, not even to research this post). Several sources online (including Grammarly) suggest that one way to identify the passive in English is to add ‘by zombies’ after it, so I’ll imagine ‘A university student was offered cash for sex by zombies’ and ‘Taylor Swift was sent death threats by zombies’.

[update: a summary today reads ‘One week after Sarah married Tom, she had both of her breasts removed’. I don’t want to add ‘by zombies’ to that. Unfortunately, the headline writer has written ‘Why Sarah removed her breasts’.]

[update much later: a headline today (26 Nov) reads “Top football clubs ‘paid to keep sex abuse victims quiet'”. I assume that’s grammatically active and not passive.]

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