British headlinese: Grammar lesson

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From Eric Smith:

"Police appeal after teenage girls kissed and touched in alleged bus incident", Isle of Wight County Press, 3/24/2016.

In today's enlightened society, why shouldn't teenage girls kiss and touch?

I think this illustrates that, in a British headline

* if a verb form is ambiguous as between a preterite tense and a past participle, the past participle is probably what is meant;

* if the syntax is ambiguous as between a standard sentence and an abbreviated sentence, the abbreviated sentence is probably what is meant.

As a secondary point, I suspect that "appeal" is intended as a noun, so that "Police appeal" is a nominal and not a clause.

So isn't it past time to create the British Headlines Treebank?

Obigatory screenshot:


  1. Lazar said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 10:33 am

    I've been struck quite a few times by infelicitous "preterite or participle" headlines on British news sites, although I suppose Eric's first dictum could be defended on the grounds that headlines generally default to the present tense when discussing (recent) past events. If the "mistaken" interpretation were true, then it would likely read “Police appeal after teenage girls kiss and touch in alleged bus incident”.

    One practice of British headlinese that absolutely baffles me, though, is the insistence on writing "X shoots dead Y" instead of the more natural and unambiguous “X shoots Y dead”. What's the justification for this one?

  2. David Arthur said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

    I'm more interested in this 'alleged bus' they were on.

  3. Robert Ayers said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

    Last month the newssite "The Hill" ran the headline
    Wife of Redskins owner donated to Trump

    [(myl) "Adjunct ambiguity of the week", 3/14/2016.]

  4. DWalker said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

    I, too, want to know more about the alleged bus.

  5. DCBob said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

    Well, I personally find British police appealing whether teenage girls kiss or not. But maybe that's just me.

  6. Adrian Bailey said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

    I'm pretty sure that "appeal" is a verb. A noun would be too static.

    As far as "kissed and touched" is concerned, it's usual in headlines that past participles are indicators of the passive voice. There are many similarly ambiguous headlines, including in newspapers read by less educated people, so I conclude that newspaper readers are attuned to such headlinese.

    Once again, I recommend Fritz Spiegl's "Keep Taking The Tabloids!" (1983) for a good introduction to British headlinese.

  7. bobbie said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 4:34 pm

    Headline could have read, "Police search for man who fondled and kissed girls on a bus" — But that is not ambiguous enough, I guess.

  8. Bmblbzzz said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    The problem with "Police search for man who fondled and kissed girls on a bus" is probably that it is too definite. The incident is "alleged" because it has not gone to court. Libel laws and all that.

    As for the "alleged bus", well you'll find lots of buses in the UK are alleged. Some of them actually do run, if you wait till next Tuesday.

    The surprise for me in this is that US newspapers do not, it seems, share the fondness for abbreviated sentences and passive voice in their headlines.

  9. Guy said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

    Off topic, but this post caused me to realize that the verbs "kiss" and "touch", usually transitive, can be used intransitively with subjects denoting more than one person with a meaning as if the object were "each other". This isn't usually true for transitive verbs (compare "see", for example), but seems to be the case for other usually transitive-only verbs that express interactions that are frequently or typically mutual. "Hug", the non-driving sense of "merge", and "intertwine" are other examples, "marry" is another candidate, although it could be argued that "get married" is more idiomatic. This should be distinguished from verbs like "fight" which can be intransitive with a subject that denotes a single person. I wonder, are there seemingly arbitrary exceptions to this pattern? Would a rule saying that verbs often expressing mutual activities between subject and object can be used this way have clear exceptions? "Feel" is arguably an exception, given its semantic affinity with "touch", but "feel" denotes a one-way flow of sensory information that could be said to disqualify it.

  10. dw said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 6:22 pm


    The incident is "alleged" because it has not gone to court.

    But the thing that is alleged is the kissing and touching, not the bus! Surely "Police appeal after teenage girls allegedly kissed and touched on bus" would make more sense?

  11. Levantine said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 9:44 pm

    Lazar, I don't think "X shoots dead Y" is limited to headlinese in British English. "He shot dead the queen" sounds perfectly fine to my British ears, and perhaps more idiomatic than "He shot the queen dead". Maybe American English doesn't allow this construction. In what way is it ambiguous, though?

  12. Levantine said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 9:52 pm

    And regarding "alleged bus incident", I had no trouble parsing it as "the alleged incident that took place on the bus" rather than "the incident that took place on the alleged bus". As headlinese goes, "bus incident" reads pretty straightforwardly as a compound.

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 9:59 pm

    Thanks, Mark.

  14. David Morris said,

    March 24, 2016 @ 10:58 pm

    Lectio difficilior potior – "the more difficult reading is the stronger".

  15. Lazar said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 3:51 am

    @Levantine: It's ambiguous because it might imply that the person being shot is already dead; LL has addressed this here and here. For me as an AmEng speaker, "He shot the queen dead" is absolutely more idiomatic, with "He shot dead the queen" skirting the line between stodgy and ungrammatical.

  16. David L said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 8:05 am

    This just in: Egyptian police shoot dead suspects in Giulio Regeni murder

    Overkill, you might say.

    US newspapers typically use the construction "fatally shoot" to avoid this problem.

  17. Levantine said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 10:19 am

    Without an article, I agree that "X shoots dead Y" (Man shoots dead robber) doesn't read well. But outside the realm of headlinese, with all words included, the construction sound completely fine to me (The man shoots dead the robber).

  18. Levantine said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    Oh, and forgot to add that the full version is in no way ambiguous, even if if doesn't sound idiomatic by American standards.

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    I had the same observation as Guy, which seems like it ought to be non-original, but was a point I had never previously consciously noticed in my lengthy career as a native-speaker Anglophone. But I'm not sure it works when the subject is plural in an open-ended way, as opposed to "dual." Although that may depend on the verb — I guess a larger-than-two-members group could "hug [each other]" but not "kiss [each other]" just because it would be too physiologically/logistically challenging for each member of a more-than-two-member group to be simultaneously kissing every other member. For everyone to eventually kiss everyone else in a sequential/round-robin kind of way rather than simultaneously doesn't to my ear support this objectless usage of the verb.

  20. Alon Lischinsky said,

    March 27, 2016 @ 4:15 pm

    @Guy, @J. W. Brewer: there's some discussion of the topic in Manning, E. (1997) Kissing and cuddling: the reciprocity of romantic and sexual activity. In K.Harvey and C. Shalom (eds), Language and Desire: Encoding Sex, Romance, and Intimacy (pp. 43–59). London: Routledge.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 28, 2016 @ 8:32 am

    I would just note that the verb doesn't have to be "romantic" because objectless "fight" with plural subject has the same implication of "fighting each other." I do agree that reciprocity is part of what's going on (i.e. when we say in this context that A and B are Xing, we mean that A is Xing B simultaneously with B Xing A).

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