Parsing entertainment headlines

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Here are two entertainment news headlines that are difficult to parse without knowing in advance what they're reporting on. First up, from TIME, a headline on a May 31 piece by TV critic James Poniewozik:

Fox's Megyn Kelly Alpha-Dogs Working-Mom Critic Erick Erickson

Second, from Cinema Blend, a headline on a post earlier today by Mack Rawden:

After Earth Lost To Both Fast & Furious And Now You See Me At Friday Box Office
Reading the TIME headline ("Fox's Megyn Kelly Alpha-Dogs Working-Mom Critic Erick Erickson"), you might at first have trouble recognizing that alpha-dogs is the verb in the sentence, with "working-mom critic Erick Erickson" as its object. It's much easier to parse if you've already seen the much-circulated back-and-forth between Kelly and Erickson, in which Kelly takes Erickson to task for inane statements about gender roles. (Erickson claimed that, in the animal world, "the male [is] dominant in strength and protection and the female dominant in nurture," and that therefore humans should follow suit.) Kelly easily dominates Erickson in the discussion, so she is, following Erickson's own appeal to sociobiology, the alpha dog.

OED has the relevant sense of alpha back to 1938:

Designating a dominant individual, esp. one dominant among others of its own sex in a mixed group of social animals; of or relating to such an individual. In extended use (sometimes with humorous or depreciative connotations): designating a person tending to assume a dominant role in social or professional situations, or thought to possess the qualities and confidence for leadership.

Alpha male also dates to 1938. Alpha dog doesn't merit its own entry, but it's a popular collocation, especially since a 2006 movie of that name. So, given all of that cultural knowledge, one can see how alpha-dog could be turned into a transitive verb to mean "dominate (someone)." But making that parsing on the fly is a lot to ask of the casual headline reader.

The Cinema Blend headline ("After Earth Lost To Both Fast & Furious And Now You See Me At Friday Box Office") is more of a classic crash blossom, with a humorously ambiguous reading. (Earth lost to both Fast & Furious? And what happened after that? I see you at Friday box office?) But those ambiguities would fade away if there were quotation marks around the movie titles "After Earth," "Fast & Furious," and "Now You See Me." It appears to be Cinema Blend's style to refrain from quotation marks (or italics) on movie titles, but one wonders if the headline writer was having a bit of fun and crafting an intentional crash blossom.

(Hat tip, Donna Malayeri and Ben Greenman.)

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18 Comments »

  1. Sharat B. said,

    June 1, 2013 @ 11:39 pm

    I have another question: why did they hyphenate "working-mom?"

  2. R. Sabey said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 1:12 am

    @Sharat B. Perhaps, to make it clear (!) that Erickson is a critic of the "working mom", not a working mom who is a critic, or a working person who is a critic of moms.

    I find it strange that the headline-writer doesn't assume that readers already know what Erickson has said that prompted Kelly's response, but does assume that they can parse the headline, which, as noted, entails spotting that "Alpha-Dogs" is a verb.

  3. David Morris said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 4:16 am

    I didn't spot that "Alpha-Dogs" is a verb, but on reflection it must be – it's the only thing that possibly could be. On the other hand, my background knowledge to the first headline is precisely zero. My background knowledge to the second headline allowed me to interpret it. Using italics or inverted commas for titles and lower case for everything else not requiring upper case would help everyone.

  4. peter said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 4:21 am

    R. Sabey –

    As has been noted on LL before, the main intention of a headline writer is to lead you to read the story. A headline that is difficult to parse or apparently inconsistent may be more effective for this goal than one that is unambiguous.

  5. Adrian said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 4:45 am

    @Sharat: Because "working-mom" is a compound modifier like "self-styled", "40-year-old" or "cupcake-entrepreneur".

  6. Jon Weinberg said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 7:07 am

    I wonder how much this usage of alpha (OED dates to 1938) was influenced by Brave New World (1932).

  7. Faldone said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 7:10 am

    I had no problem parsing either of these headlines, and I'm not a big movie follower or a Fox News viewer.

  8. Faldone said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 7:17 am

    As far as putting movie titles in quotation marks, I would think the intended audience of an article in Movie News wouldn't need them.

  9. Faldone said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    Excuse me. Cinema Blend not Movie News.

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 8:48 am

    I suppose it's just my dirty mind, but "alpha-dogs" as a verb conjures up a rather disturbing image of what Megyn Kelly did to Erick Erickson.

  11. Yuval said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 9:34 am

    What turns the Cinema Blend example to a real disaster is the union of Title Caps and Headline Caps. Even without quotations on the movie titles, this sentence should be parsed fine when in the body of the piece and not its headline.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 10:16 am

    both Fast & Furious and …

    Both always predicts and, not &, so there is no ambiguity in writing. In speaking, & would be just syllabic [n] ("fast 'n furious", as in "rock 'n roll"), but the following and would often be stressed.

  13. Tim said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 11:58 am

    "Perhaps, to make it clear (!) that Erickson is a critic of the "working mom", not a working mom who is a critic…"

    If that was their intention, it didn't work. My first reading was that Kelly was "alpha-dogging" (somehow, I correctly read that as a verb on the first pass) a critic who was a working mom, until I got to the name "Erick" and realized that didn't make sense.

    As for the second headline, part of the problem might lie in the use of a simple past tense verb, which I think is unusual in headlines. My first interpretation started out as "after [the] Earth [was] lost to…". In normal headlinese, shouldn't they have started with "After Earth loses to both Fast & Furious…"?

  14. Zizoz said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

    I correctly parsed "alpha-dogs" as a verb the first time, but it did take me a moment to guess what it could mean. My reading of the second was initially the same as Tim's.

  15. David Morris said,

    June 2, 2013 @ 11:46 pm

    I've just noticed Slate's headline: Fox News Host Megyn Kelly Shreds Pundit for Views on Women in the Workplace

  16. Dan T. said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    The hyphens do help in parsing the first one. As for the second, I think italicizing the titles would be proper style, and would help in the parsing.

  17. Meesher said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 4:40 am

    I knew After Earth and Fast & Furious were films, but I initially read the last one as Now You See Me at Friday, the box office of which both other films lost to.

  18. Meesher said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 4:42 am

    Or no, sorry, After Earth lost to both.

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