For want of an apostrophe…

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Via Lisa McLendon, aka Madam Grammar, comes this unfortunately (un)punctuated headline currently on Drudge Report:

Hackers threaten to show teenagers intimate photos

The headline links through to an article from the UK tabloid The Mirror: "The Snappening: Thousands of kids, some as young as 10, could have nude photos posted online." ("The Snappening" is the name given by 4chan hackers of the threatened release of 200,000 intercepted private photos and videos created using the Snapchat messaging app. "The Snappening" is modeled on "The Fappening," 4chan's Reddit's name for the recent leak of celebrity nude photos, in turn formed by blending "The Happening" with fap, a slang term for "masturbate.")

In the Drudge headline, an apostrophe would clear up the ambiguity: "Hackers threaten to show teenagers' intimate photos" would indicate that the intimate photos belong to teenagers, and the hackers threaten to show them. Without the apostrophe, a crash blossom blossoms, making it seem like the teenagers are going to be shown intimate photos by the hackers.

In spoken English, the ambiguity would be inevitable (although the two versions might be slightly different prosodically). That's because the verb show can either take one noun complement or two — that is, it can be either monotransitive (show NP) or ditransitive (show NP1 NP2). Joybrato Mukherjee, in English Ditransitive Verbs, puts show in the category of "habitual ditransitive verbs" (along with ask, send, and offer), verbs that are "used fairly frequently in general but not in an explicit ditransitive syntax in the clear majority of all cases in which they occur." In Mukherjee's corpus study (based on ICE-GB), show appears in explicit ditransitive syntax 13 percent of the time.

Even if show is more typically monotransitive, that doesn't help when there are clearly two NP complements (teenagers and intimate photos). At the very least, it would require a moment of cogitation to get the parsing straight and figure out that the two NPs are in a possessive construction, teenagers' intimate photos. So in print, the apostrophe is essential. In the words of Alex Bledsoe, "Copy editors… I miss them."


  1. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    October 11, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

    > "The Fappening," 4chan's name …

    I thought it was reddit's name for the event.

    [(bgz) I assumed they got it from 4chan, but it's hard to reconstruct these things, especially since the relevant subreddit has been banned.]

  2. Mark Mandel said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 1:04 am

    Isn't "fap" onomatopoeic slang for, specifically, male masturbation?

  3. Chris Hunt said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 3:52 am

    The apostrophe is required to give the headline the intended sense, but frankly both possible meanings of that sentence are likely to be true – a lot of the people who want to see those pictures are going to be under 20.

  4. Keith said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 5:20 am

    This is a good example of why it is a good idea to use those little bits of glue that are so often left out…

    Compare the original:

    "Hackers threaten to show teenagers intimate photos"

    With these two rewritten versions:

    "Hackers threaten to show intimate photos of teenagers"
    "Hackers threaten to show intimate photos to teenagers"

    If space was so short that the headline writer couldn't accept adding those bits of clue that clearly show that the second argument is in either the genitive or the dative, the word "teenagers" could be shortened to "teens".


  5. Craig said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 9:42 am

    "In spoken English, the ambiguity would be inevitable…"

    Except no competent English speaker would have said it that way. I've noticed many times that headline writers, in their apparent quest to squeeze a concept into as few words as possible, can unthinkingly create unfortunate ambiguities of this type. My all-time favorite is the early 1980s headline, "Pope Plans Talks to End Long Division". This was not about arithmetic, as one might understandably think; the story concerned the Pope's desire to bring the Anglican Church back into the Roman Catholic fold.

    In this case, I think anyone but a headline writer would probably have said something more like, "Hackers are threatening to publish nude selfies taken by teenagers."

  6. Plane said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 11:18 am

    @MarkMandel I used to think so, but I've come across a fair bit of non-male usage and it no longer seems that way to me.

    My guess is that, at the moment, it varies from speaker to speaker.

  7. Christopher said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    Mark the way I know it, the term reached 4chan from sexylosers, wherein it is used as you describe, with the female equivalent being "shlick". Perhaps best not to dwell on such things.

  8. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    As far as I know the earliest use of the term 'fap' appeared in the comic 'sexy losers', which I will not link. At least that's who Randy Milholland credited when responding to a widespread belief that it had appeared first in his comic, 'Something Positive'.

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