EU gets tough with mean kids

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"EU rules ‘mean children can't get life-saving cancer drugs’", Euractive 2/11/2014. Death panels in the Nanny State? As Ali G said to Sir Rhodes Boyson, "Wikkid, man."

Of course, this is not actually a misguided attempt to teach good manners in extremis, but rather an instance of lexical ambiguity in headlines.

Screen shot:

[Tip of the hat to David Donnell]

Update — It occurs to me that there may still be a UK/US difference in the strength of the sense of the adjective mean that the OED glosses as " Of a person, a person's actions, etc.: disobliging, uncooperative; unpleasant, unkind; vicious, cruel", and calls "colloq. (orig. U.S.)". If so, this would make the "deny drugs to mean children" interpretation more accessible to Americans than to Brits.

The sequence "mean children" specifically occurs 19 times in COCA, and three of these are the "unpleasant, unkind, vicious, cruel" sense, with mean being a verb in the other cases. There are 6 instances of "mean children" in the BNC, and all of them have verbal mean. This is suggestive but not statistically reliable.

COCA has 195 instances of "mean people", of which 30 are adjectival (all with the "unpleasant, unkind, vicious, cruel" sense). BNC has 74 instances of "mean people", all of which are verbal mean. By Fisher's Exact Test (two-tailed), the null hypothesis (that both outcomes reflect the same underlying process) has probability less than .0001. (The method of inter-ocular trauma gives the same result in this case…)



  1. GeorgeW said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 9:15 am

    It looks like a misplaced quotation mark to me. If the leading one was placed before "children" instead "mean" there would be no (or little) ambiguity.

    [(myl) This is the usage that Geoff Pullum has called "mendacity quotes".]

  2. rgove said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 9:19 am

    I've always been wary about this use of paraphrased "quotes" integrated into the grammar of the headline without attribution. I have a suspicion that journalists use this as a way of signaling their agreement with the sentiments expressed in the quote, even if the body of the article is written in an objective fashion.

    For example, you wouldn't catch any American news source running the headline "America 'is Great Satan'" without suffixing it with "says Khomeini".

  3. rgove said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 9:25 am

    More recently, we have, from the same news source, "William Roache 'attacked girl in toilet'" (from during his trial) and William Roache 'treated women with respect' (after he was found not guilty).

  4. Brett said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    @rgove: The use of quotes that way does have a real, "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment," vibe.

  5. Mark Etherton said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 10:20 am


    I don't see that the quotation mark is misplaced. If the source said something like 'These regulations mean children can't get life-saving cancer drugs', it would be a reasonable quotation. The problem is that neither the Reuters story or the original press release from the Institute for Cancer Research uses the quoted phrase in the text.

  6. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 10:38 am

    The use of quotes, not for direct quotation but to signify 'someone says that', is standard in British headlines. This does, however, leave it rather undetermined just where the quotes should come. 'Mean' is part of the content of what someone is saying, but so for that matter is 'EU rules': I guess that was not put within quotes because the existence of the rules is not in dispute.

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 10:40 am

    @Mark: Since these are UK-style "claim quotes" (as Martyn Cornell terms them), there is no actual quoting going on — just an attribution of a claim. So it's up to the headline writer to position the quotation marks in the least misleading manner.

  8. G Jones said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    Usually the verb "mean" has some sort of complement. X means Y. The complement here is the rest of the sentence, so you're right, GeorgeW, starting the quote with "child" would make the quoted part the "complement" of "mean," and clear things up considerably.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 10:58 am

    @Mark Etherton:
    I interpret "mean" differently in the following sentences. In the first, "mean" seems to be an adjective. In the second, "mean" seems to be a verb.

    1. EU rules 'mean children can't get life-saving cancer drugs'

    2. EU rules mean 'children can't get life-saving cancer drugs'

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 11:21 am

    In speech I think GeorgeW's two alternatives would be disambiguated fairly clearly by stress pattern (with the word "mean" receiving emphasis in the first alternative that it doesn't in the second). I don't know if that's ubiquitous with these crash-blossom headlines (or with garden path sentences generally), or particular to this particular case.

  11. dw said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    I have the impression that, in sentences of the form

    X rules [that] VP

    the word "that" is usually present in UK English. This might help explain what, I agree, is a sub-optimal headline.

  12. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    dw: In actual English, certainly, but in headlinese, where there's pressure to leave words out, I'm not so sure.

  13. rgove said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

    'Mean' is part of the content of what someone is saying, but so for that matter is 'EU rules': I guess that was not put within quotes because the existence of the rules is not in dispute.

    Yes: if "mean" was outside of the quotes, then the news organization would be stating it as their opinion that EU rules mean something, rather than attributing that opinion to some unspecified third party. Leaving the noun phrase "EU rules" ourside of the quotes is fine, because the noun phrase alone does not convey any opinion.

    Of course, they could also have quoted the whole headline, and that's not unheard of in UK style either.

  14. Jimblewix said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

    Language Log probes "lexical ambiguity in headlines" shock.

  15. Alex said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

    LOL. It took me a few paragraphs of reading the article to understand the headline as intended.

  16. Ted said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

    The proposition that EU rules are not meaningless is fairly uncontroversial, no? I would have thought the issue is what they mean, not the existence of meaning. So "mean," at least, ought to be outside the quotation marks — it's the attribution of the specific meaning to the newspaper that they're trying to disclaim.

    But, from a US perspective, the idea that this sort of characterization of someone else's position could be appropriately placed within quotation marks is repugnant.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 3:27 pm

    I'm not sure I'm following exactly what Ted is finding "repugnant," but I have seen some U.S. papers use quotation marks in headlines in pretty much exactly the usage Martyn Cornell dubbed "claim quotes" in the prior thread referenced above. As a U.S. reader who has become familiar with the convention, I do not expect that the words inside the quotation marks will necessarily be in haec verba from a verbatim attributed quotation contained in the body of the story, but I do expect that they will be a fair paraphrase of a claim/characterization/allegation (presumably one potentially subject to dispute, or else the quotation marks wouldn't be there) referenced in the story.

  18. AntC said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    It took me several attempts (and some reading of the comments) before I groked the 'wrong' sense here.
    You wouldn't put a "that" in a headline, but it would differentiate:
    EU rules that mean children …
    EU rules mean that children …
    So @GeorgeW's suggestion re quote placement is the most concise way to differentiate.
    In this headline, the "mean" is really an indicator of reported speech(?)

  19. Steve said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    Of course, it could be argued, given the poor quality of accurate verbatim quotation that occurs in journalism, that anything in quotation marks should be viewed as a paraphrase and not a quote.

    If it's a paraphrase of a statement anyway, or perhaps an even looser characterization of what somebody meant (rather than a paraphrase of what they said), why not redraft the whole thing for clarity? Perhaps:

    EU rules 'deny children life-saving cancer drugs'

    And now for the obligatory noun pile hed parody:

    EU rules tots cancer drugs denial row


    Tots cancer drugs denial row – EU quizzed

  20. Rubrick said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

    @Ben Zimmer:

    I think there's a typo in your comment; I'm pretty sure you meant to say "So it's up to the headline writer to position the quotation marks in the *most* misleading manner."

  21. Ray Girvan said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    @Alex: It took me a few paragraphs of reading the article to understand the headline as intended.

    Yes – I found that more of a puzzle than the headline. Initially the implication of "waiving trials" seemed to mean that it'd be OK to risk using the untrialled drug on children (which seemed pretty outrageous until I'd read it through a couple of times and realised what it actually meant). That could be down to the semantics of "waiving", which usually implies relaxing some condition to allow something to happen.

  22. David Morris said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

    Headlinese developed partly because of limitations of space in print editions, but this is from an online edition, where there is plenty of space for the 'that' which would disambiguate.
    One cause of crash blossoms is the fact that in English plural nouns and present simple 3sg verbs both end in 's' – here, 'rules' could be a noun (the intended reading) or a verb (the unintended reading). Less usual here is 'mean' as a present tense verb *and* an adjective. I can't think of another word which would double up in that way.

  23. Ken Brown said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 6:53 pm


  24. Stan said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

    More mean-related ambiguity in this image. Daft but amusing.

  25. Eric Jablow said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 11:24 pm

    Average children do not get cancer; otherwise, it would be too common.

  26. Peter Taylor said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 3:37 am

    With respect to trans-Atlantic differences: I find the interpretation that stingy children can't get drugs (perhaps the EU rules prohibit subsidies?) an easier one than unkind children etc. But the intended meaning is considerably easier than either.

  27. Sid Smith said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 4:52 am

    "Headlinese developed partly because of limitations of space in print editions, but this is from an online edition, where there is plenty of space for the 'that' which would disambiguate."

    You'd certainly think so … but at The [London] Times we have a strict count of 110-120 characters for online headlines – because there are templates for online pages.

    As a Brit I had no trouble with this example – probably for the reason that Mark suggested. Yes, putting "mean" outside the quotes would be better, I think. I'd also echo the comments above that quotes in UK headlines aren't expected to be verbatim.

    An important use is in trial reporting; UK courts heavily punish news reports that seem to be prejudicial, so it's handy to use these "claim quotes" (neat name!) as a distancer, tho you'd want to add "court hears" or "court told", etc.

    A year or two ago I suggested in LL that this use of quotation marks in headlines isn't seen in the US; comments above reinforce the message that I was wrong!

  28. Ted said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 5:19 am

    I'd be interested to see examples of this usage in US headlines. I'm not convinced that it's common, and I think most readers would generally interpret it as indicating an actual quotation. Even in the most famous instance of such a paraphrase ("Ford to City: Drop Dead"), the Daily News didn't use quotation marks. And if it had — saying something like "Ford Tells City To 'Drop Dead'", which I gather Martyn Taylor and Sid Smith, among others, would consider appropriate in UK style — readers (not to mention Ford) would have a legitimate claim that the News had inaccurately reported Ford's statement.

    That was forty years ago, of course, but without evidence, I'm far from convinced that anything's changed.

  29. tpr said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 5:29 am

    They're called 'quotation marks', but statements can be placed within quotation marks in other contexts even when no one in particular said them. For example:

    1. The topic to be debated is "Is creation a viable model of origins in today's modern scientific era?"

    2. Essay topic: Evaluate the claim that "The death penalty should be eliminated".

    3. In the sentence "The dog bit the man", the subject is 'the dog'.

    In these examples, it's used to eliminate use/mention ambiguity. The British headline convention seems more akin to this type of use even if the journalistic context might prime us to expect statements in quotes to be things people actually said.

  30. GeorgeW said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 6:23 am

    @Ted: I too would like to see examples in U.S. headlines. I have not noticed this, but for several years, I have only read one print newspaper on a regular basis and it is a smallish town paper. Mostly, I read news online which may follow different conventions.

    Had the Daily News written — Ford to City: "Drop Dead" — I would have interpreted this to be a direct quote not someone's characterization of what was actually said.

  31. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    Here are three examples from yesterday's hard-copy New York Post, all in an alleged-crime context:

    1. Fund big 'looted' $9.3M (founder of private-equity firm has been indicted for misappropriating investor funds in that amount)

    2. Hip-hop big's 'slay order' (summarizing claims made in prosecution's opening statement at murder-for-hire trial)

    3. 'Payola' pol: I will be gov! (summarizing contents of surreptitious tape recordings made by government informant that were introduced as evidence during trial of state legislator accused of bribe-taking or at least bribe-soliciting)

    In each case the word(s) within the quotation marks do not appear as part of a direct quote in the body of the article, but are in context a fair paraphrase of some aspect of the yet-to-be-proven allegations against the defendant.

    It is possible that the NYP may be more influenced by UK (or Australian?) stylistic practices than the typical U.S. paper, but I've been looking for years for noun-pile heds of the classic British variety and they don't do those. FWIW they use single rather than double quotation marks in heds even for direct quotes, e.g. (from the sports section) D'Arnaud: Mets capable of 'amazing things'.

  32. Sid Smith said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    "saying something like "Ford Tells City To 'Drop Dead'", which I gather Martyn Taylor and Sid Smith, among others, would consider appropriate in UK style"

    No, I don't think the quotation marks would be used thus in the UK because they wouldn't serve the major purpose of such quotes, which is to suggest that they enclose an unproven allegation: "Drop dead" doesn't comprise an unproven allegation (in this case by Mr Ford). Obviously you would/could use the quotes if Ford had actually spoken those two words.

    @ JW Brewer: Yes, house style at The Times is likewise to use single quotes in page furniture such as headlines, pull quotes, captions.

    (Martin Amis compared "scare quotes" to a pair of tweezers for handling unclean material. Yes, I've just put "scare quotes" around "scare quotes".)

  33. Colin Fine said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 7:55 am

    I can anecdotally confirm the finding of your article. This Brit did not find the headline the least bit ambiguous, and the adjectival 'mean' never occurred to me, until I read your article.

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