Free that jar, save those officials… unh?

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One of the strangest stories gets one of the strangest headlines in a strange, strange August. The headline is from CBC in Canada, and the story is from the strange state of Florida:

Days from death, Fla. wildlife officials free plastic jar that was stuck on bear cub’s head

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty that plastic jar is free at last! Though the news about the Florida wildlife officials being close to death is alarming, of course. You may find you need some explanations. If you don’t, my compliments. But read on if you do.

The strangenesses are three. First, the bear. It was (and is still) a juvenile, and it was grubbing around in some trash when it forgot the first rule of trash grubbing. Just as every frat boy knows that the first rule of eating is to never eat anything bigger than your head, the first rule of trash grubbing is: Never put your whole head in something to root around for food unless you know you can get your head out again. The young bear forgot that, and left the trash site with his head tightly encased in a large plastic jar, and no idea about how to get it off. He wandered about with his mother for days like that, totally unable to eat or drink. (His mother did nothing. Some bears just aren’t fit to be parents, are they?)

Second (and here, since this is not Wildlife Log it’s Language Log, we move into the linguistic realm), the eccentric choice of perspective implied by the choice of argument structure. It is possible to say either We freed the bear’s head from the jar that encased it, if that’s how you see it, or We freed the jar from the bear’s head to which it was attached, for an alternate view. But almost anybody (you scarcely have to be an animal lover) would pick the first, because of a sense that it was the bear that was trapped, not the jar. A question of perspective and sympathy. The headline writer, astonishingly, picked the second type of construction, and wrote about freeing the jar. Go figure.

Third and finally, the dangling predicative adjunct. Who was just days from death? Well, this is a headline, so we have no prior context, so we don’t initially know. But we see that someone is days from death, and the comma tells us that this is an adjunct introducing a clause that is almost certainly going to tell us, so we read on, and we hit the main clause subject: Florida wildlife officials. We are all mortal, and some day every Florida wildlife official must prepare to meet the Creator of all wildlife, so it is the most natural thing in the world to take them as the target of predication that we need, and we fill it in: we understand (for a split second) that some Florida wildlife officials were just days from death. So now, what did they do?

And at that point we learn that they freed a plastic jar. Even though they were dying. The story is getting stranger and stranger. Next we learn that the jar was freed from the embarrassing predicament of being stuck on a young bear’s head. Still not a lot of sense to any of it. But we read on, and finally we encounter the explanatory sentence: “Biologists say the cub was days away from death because the jar made it impossible to eat or drink.” OK, puzzlement over. The cub was just days from death, the jar was on the cub’s head, the wildlife officials are fine, they freed the cub from its jar-imprisonment by freeing the jar from its bear-attachment, everything is now clear.

But what an appalling piece of bungled headlinery. Syntactically speaking, the correct noun phrase to pick to get a target of predication for the preposed adjunct is not the subject of the main clause, it’s buried as a genitive determiner in a noun phrase inside a relative clause modifying the object of the main clause. That’s a bafflingly uncooperative place to put it.

The subeditor who wrote that one ought to have his head trapped in a jar for a few days.

[Hat tip: Roy Hodson.]



33 Comments

  1. SeanH said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    While the silliness of the near-death wildlife officials is obvious, “free the jar” seems quite natural to me. If a ring was stuck on my finger, and I had after much struggling managed to remove it, it would feel more natural (to me) to talk about freeing the ring rather than freeing my finger – since the movement of my finger wasn’t impeded. My finger could move as it pleased, but the ring was stuck where it was. Similarly, the bear (and its head) could move as normal – it was the jar that was stuck, and so the jar that was freed.

    “Fla. wildlife officials rescue near-dead bear from plastic jar”, or something like that, would have been my version – just avoid the whole freed whom from what? problem.

  2. jim said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    Just to add another layer of misdirection, my browser happened to flow the text so that the words “the headline writer, astonishingly,” appeared on their own below the picture of the bear, like a caption. So your article seemed at first glance to be saying that the bear with its head in a jar wrote the headline, which would indeed be astonishing. (If my head were stuck in a jar, I doubt I would have the sang-froid to go about writing headlines, although it might go some way towards explaining the ineptitude of the headline I came up with.)

  3. Rolig said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    I suspect the problem is that the headline writer became wedded to the dramatic “Days from death” as an opening and then got trapped in a jar of his or her own making. If you want to mention “wildlife officials”, “bear cub’s head”, and “plastic jar” all in the headline, you can’t use “days from death”: saying “Days from death, a bear cub’s head…” is almost as silly as the given headline (the rest of the cub is fine, only his head is dying). You have to say: “Days from death, bear cub has head freed from plastic jar by Fla. wildlife officials”.

  4. Nick Lamb said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    I think headlinese requires that “days from death” stays at the front, because that sucks in the reader, who most likely does not care very much about wildlife officials, nor about plastic jars.

    “Days from death, bear cub’s head freed from plastic jar by Fla. wildlife officials”

    However I am more intrigued as to the sense in which these are “wildlife officials”. Surely there must be some more apt description for who actually did this, which doesn’t seem like an “official” kind of job. Or does this publication also report that “fire officials” attended a burning building and extinguished it? Actually given their track record here, perhaps they’d report

    “Minutes from destruction, fire officials pumped water from a hydrant, to extinguish a burning building”.

  5. Rolig said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:21 am

    Oh but wait, “has head freed from plastic jar by Fla. wildlife officials” is the DREADED PASSIVE!!! So you can’t use that!

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    I think it makes sense to focus on the jar/ring, but “free” is pragmatically odd–it’s not the jar/ring’s stuck condition that’s the issue, it’s the effect on the bear/Sean’s head/finger. I think you’d say “I got the ring off my finger.” Either way, though, the bear’s predicament wold be more acute than your finger’s.

    “Free” is one of those verbs (discussed in a couple CLS papers by Peter Hook in the early 80s on “abstruments”) that alternates between two frames–the example that sticks in my mind is “swept the floor of debris/swept debris from the floor” from ” I think there’s often a stylistic difference between the two, and this headline writer has kind of a tin ear. Once you’ve made the perilous choice to use one of these verbs, you’ve got to choose one alternative or the other, and this person didn’t keep his eye (or ear) on the ball.

  7. Adair said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    @SeanH: Your finger wouldn’t feel any disturbance in your example. But I guess the bear must have felt a great impediment although it was able to move around. I don’t think we can really say that the movement of the bear was normal. There must have been many difficulties and mistakes in his movement. Also, the mouth of the bear could move without problem but it couldn’t achieve the purpose of the movement, i.e. eating, drinking, unlike your finger’s case.

  8. Lane Greene said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    “The subeditor who wrote that one ought to have his head trapped in a jar for a few days.” Yeah, but that would hardly be fair to the poor jar, which really deserves its freedom.

  9. Robert Coren said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    Well, I agree that the headline has all the problems you attribute to it, but I think it’s pretty easy to figure out what it’s actually trying to say, just by weighing probabilities.

    On the other hand,I am disappointed, nay, shocked, that seven comments in there has been no mention of Winnie-the-Pooh.

  10. jan wohlgemuth said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    I’m still waiting for the first pun involving the bear’s head and the term “headline”.

  11. Rodger C said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    This reminds me of the frequent journalistic use of the phrase “forestry officials” to describe some of rthe Unabomber’s victims. They were in fact employees of something called a Forestry Association, but what they were was lumber industry lobbyists, a fact that one would think journalists could have discovered wothout extraordinary effort.

    I have a vision of these “forestry officials” being sent to deal with the bear.

  12. Andrew Dowd said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    The jar who wrote that ought to have a subeditor’s head trapped in it for a few days.

  13. Spectre-7 said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    If you want to mention “wildlife officials”, “bear cub’s head”, and “plastic jar” all in the headline, you can’t use “days from death”…

    Is the problem really so intractable?

    Days from death, bear cub has head freed from plastic jar by Fla. wildlife officials

    Granted, it’s not poetry, but it seems to tick all the right boxes and does so with one word less than the original.

    Of course, my own inclination would be to lean toward:
    Seconds from doom, innocent bear cub saved by local heroes from head-jar terror plot

    …but that’s because I only write ridiculous melodrama. :)

  14. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    It’s too bad that headline isn’t right: if it were, British papers could use “Dying Florida wildlife officials free bear cub head plastic jar”.

  15. Nat said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    Like SeanH, I wasn’t bothered by the jar being freed, and not because I have more concern for the jar’s welfare. Aren’t there a couple of fairly distinct senses of “free” in play here? One implies liberation and the restoration of autonomy, I think. The other just means “makes unstuck” and is appropriate for inanimate objects. One might talk of “freeing” a rusty bolt, or something like that. I took it that the second sense was in play here.
    My initial problem was in parsing “days from death”. I just didn’t see what the phrase meant, at first. Without any context I took it to mean not a time period separating one from death, but a special kind of day, like a weekday, or the first day of a month. Special days coming from a place called “Death”.

  16. MattF said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    Or, perhaps, “Near Death Plastic Jug Bear Cub Florida Wildlife Officials Free”

  17. Jlundell said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/15/bear-cub-jar-stuck-head

    Rescuers save ‘jarhead’ bear cub from starvation
    Six-month-old who got plastic container stuck on head can eat and drink again after rescue operation

  18. Sniffnoy said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    What, nobody’s suggested that maybe the jar was days from death?

  19. weewaw said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    “Days from death, Fla.” reads like there is some town called Days From Death, Florida where these shenanigans happened.

    They could have just wrote:

    “Days from death, cubs head freed from jar”

    No one really cares who does the job, “cub” establishes that it was some cute furry animal.

  20. Will said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    The subeditor who wrote that one ought to have his head trapped in a jar for a few days.

    Don’t mean that a jar ought to be trapped for a few days around the head of the subeditor who wrote that one?

    @Sniffnoy — That actually was the initial garden path my mind momentarily began to follow — the plastic jar being days from death, not the wildlife officials.

  21. Will said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    @weewaw said

    No one really cares who does the job

    And in fact, even when they did include the agents, “wildlife officials”, still nobody really knows who they are — a fact that previous comments here have revealed.

  22. Liz said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    No expertise whatsoever here – but stuck/free stuck/unstuck is interesting. The ring or the jar is stuck, but it is the finger or head that is freed. Can’t see that there was much difficult about the headline though:

    Bear cub days from death freed from jar stuck on head/ Bear cub with head stuck in jar was days from death before being freed.

  23. Rubrick said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    You guys obviously know nothing about headline writing. The correct headline is “Cub Bear-ly Escapes Jar-ring Experience”.

  24. Joyce Melton said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

    @Rubrick obviously works for Variety and the bear is about to become a media star. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at a LL story, from beginning to end. My ribs hurt.

  25. Zora said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

    “Dying Florida wildlife officials free bear cub head plastic jar”.

    I laughed till I cried. Perhaps I’m just easily amused.

  26. Hob said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:13 am

    Actually, “dying Florida wildlife officials” would be accurate. The bear, since he was on his way to starvation until he was rescued, was an example of “dying Florida wildlife”; and Florida wildlife officials are presumably responsible for all wild animals including the dying ones, so they’re implicitly “{dying Florida wildlife} officials” just as much as they are “{frolicking Florida wildlife} officials”.

    But to make it more perfect, I’d change “bear cub head plastic jar” to “plastic bear cub head jar,” just so people can wonder for a moment about the plastic bear.

  27. ajay said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 7:13 am

    Six-month-old who got plastic container stuck on head can eat and drink again after rescue operation

    The great thing about this sub-head is that it doesn’t include the word “bear” at all.

    FLA. JAR HEAD JAM BEAR CUB FREED
    or, focussing on the jar:
    FLA BEAR HEAD JAM JAR FREED

  28. David Walker said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    I’m confused by the sentence “Biologists say the cub was days away from death because the jar made it impossible to eat or drink.”

    Impossible for who(m) to eat or drink? I would have liked: “Biologists say the cub was days away from death because the jar made it impossible for the cub to eat or drink.” Or “for it to eat or drink”, assuming that “it” more clearly refers to the cub than to the biologists.

    If the biologists are just saying crazy things because they can’t eat or drink, and are delirious, then we can’t believe anything they say.

  29. David Walker said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    @ajay, If you’re going to stick “JAM” in there, surely the bear cub can be jammin’, right? Let’s go to a bear jam! Althought that might be a little jarring.

  30. Ken Brown said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    Sometimes you really need British headline writers.

    The usually excruciatingly concise Sun only came up with “Saved: The bear with a sore head”

    But the BBC website has: “Jarhead bear gets out of a jam”

    No pun left unstoned.

  31. Samantha said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    Aren’t we all just days from death…until our next meal?

  32. DMH said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 12:28 am

    For what it’s worth, this headline didn’t seem at all unnatural to me. I didn’t think of the alternative (more traditional?) parses until they were brought to my attention.

  33. L. Levitt said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    Thanks for a good, extended laugh session. In these desperate days, such interludes are rare and more than merely welcome.

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