"U.S. Supreme Court says upholds health care mandate"

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That was the tweet sent out this morning by Reuters, which got the news out about the Supreme Court decision at 10:07:43 Eastern Daylight Time, evidently just 12 seconds after Bloomberg beat them to it. (They both trumped CNN and Fox, as those networks initially misreported the ruling.)

If the tweet sounds odd to you, then you're not familiar with Reuters-ese. As we've discussed before, Reuters trains it staff to make headlines of the form "X say(s) C," where C is a complement clause missing a subject, and the missing subject is a third-person pronoun coreferring with the antecedent X. (See: "From the headline desk at Language Log Plaza" [7/28/07], "Reuters says guilty of elliptical headlines" [8/28/07], "An ursine crash blossom" [1/20/10].) So you're supposed to read this as "U.S. Supreme Court says it upholds (the) health care mandate."

When Bloomberg trumpeted its "scoop" of the breaking news, it quoted the Reuters announcement slightly differently, as "U.S. SUPREME COURT SAY UPHOLDS HEALTH CARE MANDATE." Perhaps that's what went out over the wires rather than Twitter, or perhaps Bloomberg is slightly misquoting its rival. If it was a legitimate news alert, then the writer evidently got confused between a UK-style plural construal of court (agreeing with say) and a US-style singular construal (agreeing with upholds). But style and grammar points aside, at least they got the story right.

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13 Comments »

  1. Valkyrie said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    Regarding "U.S. SUPREME COURT SAY UPHOLDS HEALTH CARE MANDATE": couldn't "say" be interpreted as a noun here, making the sentence completely sensible?

    [(bgz) Yes, that would work, if you interpret the statement as the Supreme Court having its "say." In fact, it's possible that Bloomberg "edited" the Reuters alert to fit that interpretation.]

  2. Neal Goldfarb said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    Is U.S. SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS HEALTH CARE MANDATE ungrammatical in Reutersese?

    [(bgz) Not ungrammatical, but the Reuters writers seem compelled to use the "X says C" format, even when person/entity X is making a self-declaration of the performative variety (like a court upholding a law). We could compare it to BBC-style "claim quotes."]

  3. TomParmenter said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    The propensity for making errors like this lies deep in the genes of many news organizations. The late, great United Press brought both World War 1 and World War 2 to an early end.

  4. Lazar said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

    Regardless of the ellipsis, what is the purpose of the "say(s)" in all these Reuters headlines? There are cases where a person's claim of a fact – distinct from the alleged fact itself – is newsworthy, but in this instance the story is quite simply that the Supreme Court did uphold the mandate, not that they say that they upheld it.

  5. Ed Latham said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

    I agree with Lazar. In this case omitting 'say' altogether makes the headline more conventionally grammatical – and three ens shorter – for all readers, in the Reuters newsdesk and outside. I think this is more of an error of comprehension: the writer seems to believe the court is making a claim that may be rebutted by others, but in fact it is the undisputed authority for the decision.

  6. Ed Latham said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

    Or possibly even four ens

  7. Daniel Barkalow said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    I actually think that the "says" is misleading in this case; what the Supreme Court actually said was something complicated that confused Fox and CNN about the implications. In fact, it looks to me like what they actually said required people to figure out what groups to combine in order to figure out the practical effect. (Admittedly, they did eventually mention that they had upheld the mandate, when explaining why they didn't address the issue of what would happen if they struck down just that part.)

  8. KevinM said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

    To synthesize the grammatical, Reutersese and "performative declaration" points, just add an "o":
    SUPREME COURT SAYSO UPHOLDS HEALTH CARE MANDATE

  9. Sid Smith said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 2:34 am

    "UK-style plural construal of court (agreeing with say)"

    Could you explain why you say this, please? I've often seen similar assertions about a difference between UK and US usage (previously in LL comments, for instance), but have never seen them substantiated. It's impossible, for instance, for anyone here in the UK to say 'the Supreme Court say'.

    In formal BrEng, eg the house rules in UK publications, organisations are singular. (I've been a sub-editor on UK national newpapers for 15 years, currently at The Times.) The main wrinkle is that teams are plural: 'Man U are the English league champions'. Even here, though, the organisation is singular: 'Man U is listed on the Stock Exchange'.

    And informal BrEng, like its US equivalent, bounces pretty randomly between plural and singular forms: 'WalMart is/are opening a new store'; 'Marks & Spencer have/has the best socks'.

    Or am I missing something?

    [(bgz) Sorry, I may be overextending an impression given not just by plural construals of teams but also band names with no plural marking ("The Clash are...") and governmental/military entities ("The Government are...," "The Army are...").]

  10. Sid Smith said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    Us Brits would certainly say 'The Clash are a great band.' How about Americans?

    But BrEng in most/all of the media would be 'The Army/Government is'.

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 2, 2012 @ 5:22 am

    I'd be very surprised to see a British paper use a plural with Supreme Court. Or to hear a Brit say it like that. A court, even if composed of a panel of judges, just isn't one of those entitites that is deemed to have a plural essence, or however you want to justify the British style.

  12. Chance said,

    July 2, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    Americans would almost always say "The clash IS a great band."

    But plural names get plural verbs:
    "The Rolling Stones ARE horribly over-rated."

    I am reminded of that great Elvis Costello song, "Oliver's Army," with its chorus of "Oliver's Army are on their way."

    Most Americans find that odd.

  13. Bloix said,

    July 3, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

    "In formal BrEng, eg the house rules in UK publications, organisations are singular."

    Not in my experience, they're not.

    Here's the UK treasury minister before the House of Commons, discussing events involving the Royal Bank of Scotland:

    "I know that RBS are very keen to learn the lessons from these problems…"

    http://www.itv.com/news/update/2012-06-26/treasury-minister-rbs-are-keen-to-learn-from-their-mistakes/

    This is from the website of the British bookstore chain, Waterstones:
    "Waterstones are committed to meeting the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act…"

    http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/pages/help-accessibility/1082/

    And this is from the website of the London-based international law firm, Linklaters LLP:

    "Linklaters are also excellent at supporting people in education and training."

    http://careers.linklaters.com/careers/experiences/profiles/Pages/atmosphere.aspx

    It's true that some multi-nationals have moved to the singular (you can find both at the Linklaters site), but the plural, in my experience, is standard and the singular is either "wrong" or identifiably US usage.

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