## Crashless blossoms

Before reading further, consider the following newspaper headline, and make a mental note of what you think the article is about:

This headline appeared last week in the Calgary Herald. I eyeballed it without cognitive incident, and settled down to read what I thought would be one of those year-end, low-calorie servings of retrospective meta-journalism in which there is much musing about what the past year's news events all mean. Sort of a re-mastication of analyses about the lessons we might have gleaned from the Occupy Movement.

Actually, the article turned out to be news news, reporting on the following startling event:

28. ### Dan T. said,

January 5, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

I saw it (properly) as the protestors being offered a lesson, though I wasn't sure whether this lesson would be actual or metaphorical, and I certainly had no clue that they were actually being compelled by a judge to pay somebody for such a lesson (free speech isn't free!). A more likely scenario in my head would be that some court ruling or other event served as a figurative lesson in free speech to the Occupy movement, or alternatively that some of the protestors had an opportunity to get an actual lesson, such as perhaps that some academic expert in free-speech issues was planning a lecture targeted at Occupy-movement protestors (perhaps at one of their general assemblies) to educate them on what sorts of protests they could constitutionally and legally get away with in the future.

Before the Occupy movement arose, the sentence would have been much harder to parse, given that "occupy" is a verb, so the sentence would look like somebody was being told to occupy some protestors (not really possible unless one has a method of possessing somebody else's brain).

29. ### Ellen K. said,

January 5, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

I got both meanings before clicking "Read the rest of this entry".

The first one I got was the passive interpretation: Someone offered the protestors a lesson in free speech. That didn't make sense to me (even though it was the correct interpretation), because I was missing important details to make it make sense.

Given that, and given that I'm reading it here, and given that we were told to make mental note of what we thought the headline was about, I didn't stop thinking about it and go on reading, but rather right after that got the other interpretation: That it was a retrospective piece looking over the past year, one that was making the claim that the doings of the occupy protestors in some way offered us a lesson in free speech.

Though not the first interpretation I came up with, the latter is the one I found more plausible. It hadn't occurred to me that they were being offered the lesson as a punishment for their crimes, nor that the lesson was about the limits of free speech, important details without which the correct interpretation doesn't make sense.

The FDR headline that Jerry Friedman quotes is a good illustration of how the past tense interpretation of a headline can be valid even when it's not the correct interpretation. And just as a headline about FDR would use the past tense, a headline for an article offering a retrospective look over the past year (rather than telling us about something that just happened) would use the past tense.

30. ### David Walker said,

January 5, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

Ah yes, ambiguity in the English language.

I recently read most of a 10-page "special advertising section" in a magazine. The section was devoted to Oman and its leader, who has been in power for 40 years.

Leaving aside any political issues, I gathered that the section had been written by a non-native speaker of English, although most of it was quite well done.

One thing struck me as odd in the section: A large construction project of some sort was described, followed by a mention that "even more development has been tabled". I think, from the context and the overall glowing-ness of the prose, that more development was "ON the table", or had been proposed.

It's amazing that our brains can handle such ambiguities; "tabled" is such a subtle word. If all options (to fix a problem) are "on the table", then everything is possible; and yet, when a proposal or a legislative bill has been tabled, it has been taken "off the table" rather than still being "on the table".

What an amazing language, and brain, we have!

31. ### Ellen K. said,

January 5, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

@David: I believe that difference in the use of the word "table" is a British vs. U.S. usage thing.

32. ### Gracen D said,

January 5, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

I think i can take the ambiguity one step further.

Does "Occupy protesters" mean the people engaged in the Occupy protest, or the people who are annoyed by the people engaged in the Occupy protest? It could easily be that people opposed to Occupy have been offered a little training in free speech….

33. ### Dan T. said,

January 6, 2012 @ 7:32 am

I think a protest against the Occupy protestors would be an "Occupy counterprotest".

34. ### Ø said,

January 6, 2012 @ 8:10 am

@David: Yes, this is a famous example of Separated by a Common Language. It seems that in the UK to "table" a topic means to decide to discuss it, whereas in the US it means to set it aside as something to be discussed later but not now.

35. ### David Walker said,

January 6, 2012 @ 10:57 am

Ah, I didn't know about the difference between the British and American difference of "Table". Thanks. Still, in the American language, there is a difference between something being "on the table" and being "tabled" which I find interesting.

36. ### Gregg Painter said,

January 6, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

I think one's views on the Occupy protestors and the media/government establishment did indeed color my reading of the headline. I immediately assumed, cynically (and apparently correctly) that they were being given a lesson in limits of free speech, perhaps by being fired upon or ejected from a public or private place. That they were required to pay good money to learn how 1st Amendment rights are no longer what they once were has done little to alleviate my cynicism, I'm afraid.

37. ### Barney said,

January 6, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

@Brett: I haven't seen that episode of Good Neighbours, but I think the fluster over the use of 'one' is likely to have been a joke about class. 'One', to refer to either the speaker or people in general is seen as an upper class usage, and perhaps sometimes as conveying an arrogant assumption that the speakers own thoughts or behaviours are shared by (right thinking/acting) people in general.

Presumably the character was making an effort not to be seen to be sort of person who would use 'one' like that.

38. ### Janice Byer said,

January 7, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

David, yes, on this side of the pond, we have both "on the table" and "tabled" and, too, "off the table", the last meaning, as it sounds, furthest yet removed from consideration, being synonymous with "shelved". Then, there's "circular filed" for proposals that are "DOA". We Yanks might just have the proverbial 50 words for pushing paper about, hee, in lieu of pushing business through.

39. ### ajay said,

January 9, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

To my American ear, the joke made no sense, since "one" is, to me, a marker that one is specifically not speaking about oneself

So if an American said "One cannot simply walk into Mordor" it would be equivalent to saying "You lot wouldn't be able to walk into Mordor, but I'd have no problem"? Interesting.

40. ### Ellen K. said,

January 9, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

@ajay

Well, to my American ears, "one" is a marker that one is not specifically speaking about oneself, but it certainly does not exclude oneself. And if one said "One cannot simply walk into Mordor", that would certainly include oneself.