Dead-end sentences

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Tim Leonard sends in "one for your hard-to-parse-headlines file": Tim Worstall, "The EU's Very Bad Turn $26 Billion Into $390 Billion Investment Plan", Forbes 11/23/2014. Tim observes that it's "not really a garden path, since it hits a dead end less than half way in".

Puzzled headline-parsers will get a clue from Mr. Worstall's opening:

Herr Juncker, the head of the European Commission, is about to announce a plan whereby the EU puts $26 billion or so into an investment fund which is then geared up with private money to amount to a $390 billion fund that will revolutionise the European economy, light the flames of the white heat of technology and so drearily on. Sadly, the plan is based upon a simple misconception. It’s possible that there’s a case for public investment in a number of areas: there are such things as public goods, after all. It’s also possible that there’s a case for greater private investment in certain areas: that is how the economy advances, after all. But there’s no case at all for trying to make those public investments, potentially in public goods, on private sector terms […]

In other words, the headline's structure is "The EU's MODIFIER1 MODIFIER2 Investment Plan", where MODIFIER1 is "Very Bad", and MODIFIER2 is "Turn $26 Billion Into $390 Billion".

Richard Sproat and I briefly discussed such phrasal modifiers — often verb phrases, as in this case — in "Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English", pp. 131-181 in Lexical Matters, Sag and Szabolsci, Eds. University of Chicago Press., 1992.  There's no digital version of this book, alas, and I don't have access to my copy since I'm traveling, but I do remember one of our examples:

… an old-fashioned white-shoe do-it-on-the-golf-course banker …

Aside from under-hyphenation, the Forbes headline suffers from several unhelpful lexical or syntactic ambiguities. For example, turn could be a noun, with "The EU's Very Bad Turn" leading us into the first dead end. I then backed up and tried again on the theory that "The EU's Very Bad" were some designated group of banksters, who were spinning $26 billion up into some sort of Enron-like scam. But not so.

The obligatory screen shot:



  1. Alan Shaw said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

    While I would certainly have hyphenated or quoted MODIFIER2, I must admit that I understood the headline within three seconds of the initial confusion. In computer programming we're used to backtracking when pathfinding.

  2. John A Berenberg said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 7:09 pm

    Huh. It didn't leave me puzzled at all — just wrong. I took "The EU's Very Bad" to be headlinese for a group of evil doers, along the lines of, say, James Bond's antagonist SMERSH. This group turned a $26 Billion stake into a $390 Billion Investment Plan.

  3. Kevin Flynn said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

    Excuse me for going off very much at a tangent, but I was struck by the journalist's use of "Herr Juncker". Quite aside from the fact that this style looks and sounds so very antiquated (in Britain at least) — shades of "Herr Hitler" and "Signor Mussolini" in the newsreels of the 1930s — Mr Juncker's first language is Luxembourgish and he was educated in French, so that "Här Juncker" or "Monsieur Juncker" would be more appropriate styles of reference if Mr Worstall is really so intent upon pointing to the European Commission President's linguistic roots in this way.

  4. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

    Turning 26 billion into 390 billion seems like a very good thing indeed.

  5. Tim Worstall said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 10:07 pm

    'Tis a tad clunky, isn't it?

    "The EU's Very Bad Plan To Turn $29 Billion Into A $390 Billion Investment Fund"

    Might have been better.

    And unlike the usual get out, that writers don't compose their own headlines, I can't use that. For it is indeed all mine.

  6. Mark Mandel said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

    Or they could have quoted MODIFIER2, since it reads like a scammer's come-on for the same thing:
    The EU's Very Bad "Turn $26 Billion Into $390 Billion" Investment Plan

  7. Jeroen Mostert said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 1:29 am

    @Alan Shaw: Good for you — I'm a computer programmer and I only got it after the explanation. Like John, I too stopped at discovering the "very bad" who were responsible for this. And per Mark, I would have had no trouble with this at all had they just bothered to add quotes. Lots of hyphens would look bad in a headline, but I think quotes would be no problem (unless there's a policy to use them only for direct qoutations, of course).

  8. Tim Worstall said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 1:38 am

    On the "quotes" idea we're under instruction not to use them.

    Also, as a more general point: usually a writer doesn't compose the headline, that's done by the sub. A specialist art as it were. With online publishing this rather changes and as is obvious, not all of us have quite grasped all of the intricacies of that specialist art.

  9. Yuval said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 5:14 am

    Typo patrol – "a nouns".

  10. Baylink said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    I dunno; I had no problem parsing it as

    "The EU's Very Bad 'Turn $26 Billion Into $390 Billion' Investment Plan", but perhaps it's because I'm prone to write such heds. Of course, I always put the scare quotes in…

  11. BZ said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

    Huh, this didn't really bother me. My first attempt was "The EU' Very Bad Turn", but since that can't be modified by anything that starts with $26, I didn't have to go back to realize that "turn" is the start of a new clause. Once that was out of the way, I parsed it easily.

  12. Rubrick said,

    November 25, 2014 @ 6:09 pm

    In nearly all these sorts of posts, someone comments that the use of quotation marks in the headline would clear things right up, and someone points out that quotes are not permitted in headlines. Can anyone give a cogent reason for why they aren't? This feels like one of those "Well, we couldn't do it using lead type for some reason, and it's just always been that way" situations, but I'd be interested in hearing if there's some more defensible explanation.

  13. Tim Worstall said,

    November 25, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

    Cogent reason? No. Other than "here's a series of conventions to which we adhere".

    Those conventions differing from place to place. Different people use different style books. And as basic background, American places are much more rigid about whatever style book it is than English places.

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