ESPN vs. the English language

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A screenshot from ESPN's home page has been making the rounds on Imgur and Reddit. It captures a tease to a column by Howard Bryant, and it's dubbed "Possibly the worst sentence ever."

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By the time I checked out, the sentence had been changed a bit, making it slightly more comprehensible.


Why has Cam Newton being upset he lost received more attention than Peyton Manning being named in a lawsuit against Tennessee alleging the school fostered a hostile work environment for women?


Why has Cam Newton's behavior after losing gotten more attention than Peyton Manning being named in a lawsuit against Tennessee alleging the school fostered a hostile work environment for women?

The original version is a bumpier ride along the garden path, as the opening Why has Cam Newton may encourage readers to construe Cam Newton as the subject of the sentence (which displays the subject-auxiliary inversion typical of English questions). Then when you look for a past participle to go with the auxiliary has, you're confronted with being upset he lost before arriving at the intended main verb, received. After finally piecing together has received, you then have to go back and read Cam Newton being upset he lost as the intended subject.

Sticklers for the old "possessive with gerund" prescriptive rule would argue that the subject ought to be Cam Newton's being upset he lost. While that might help the reader identify the subject here, such a change would strike a formal register a bit out of place on the ESPN home page. Better to recast the whole subject to avoid the awkward phrasing. The revised version, Cam Newton's behavior after losing is indeed more readily parsed as a noun phrase interposed between the auxiliary has and the main verb. Replacing received with gotten may also represent an improvement (at least for American readers), since gotten is clearly a past participle of the V-en form and easier to match up with has.

But even if you get through all of that, you still have to tackle the super-heavy noun phrase after than: Peyton Manning being named in a lawsuit against Tennessee alleging the school fostered a hostile work environment for women. Though the basic sentence structure is simple enough —

Why has NP1 received/gotten more attention than NP2?

— loading up those two NPs with so much journalistic detail makes the whole thing ridiculously unwieldy. My guess is the sentence went through a few editorial passes, with a bit more added each time, resulting in an unreadable mess. And I'm not sure any amount of further tinkering could rehabilitate it from its sorry state.

(Hat tip, Dan Schmidt.)


  1. rosie said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 1:38 am

    Why has that sentence having a complex subject got it the sobriquet "worst sentence ever"? The two successive participles "lost received" stumped me for maybe a couple of seconds.

  2. Chris Waigl said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 1:45 am

    I actually parsed the original version correctly on the second try.

  3. William Ockham said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 4:00 am

    I lost track on the headline. I read it as [There is] 'Noise surrounding Peyton Manning', [and] 'Cam Newton is not harmless'.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 5:27 am

    For those who wonder, in the end, what the cited lawsuit is about, the details are laid out here.

  5. January First-of-May said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 7:23 am

    Count me in for immediately understanding what was going on, at least in regard to the first twenty or so words.
    And that only because at first I thought Peyton Manning was the guy who brought the suit against Tennessee. Which is probably less mis-parsing and more having no idea of the context (which would've been obvious to mosr Americans).

    (And still better than my second attempt, which had Peyton Manning as the school that the state of Tennessee sued against… which, again, makes perfect sense if you happen to know exactly nothing about contemporary US culture! But this borderline theoretical "mis-parsing" isn't really the topic of this post either.)

  6. Adrian Bailey said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 8:17 am

    Yeah, nothing really wrong with the sentence after all, though I went up the garden path, expecting "been" rather than "being" and then getting stuck at "lost received". It's a good example of a construction that wouldn't cause problems when spoken, but confuses in print.

  7. Faldone said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 8:50 am

    Maybe it's because I was primed to expect something incomprehensible, but I had no problems reading the original.

  8. Jacob said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    Has Cam Newton really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?

  9. Ellen K. said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 9:27 am

    When I got to "being" it first seemed grammatically wrong, but that caused me to look for a different parsing, immediately, before going any farther. I got the right one, and read on with no problem understanding. No needing to backtrack.

  10. Brett said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 10:19 am

    I was certainly expecting something incomprehensible, but I had no trouble following the sentence the first time I read it. It certainly is not eloquent, but it made sense.

  11. Rube said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 10:40 am

    Same as Brett, I had no trouble parsing the sentence on the first go.

    It probably helped, though, that I was familiar with both of the stories that the sentence was referencing.

  12. January First-of-May said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

    I agree that perhaps I succeeded better because I expected to see something incomprehensible (my normal reading speed being what it is – that is to say, 2200 wpm – I might well have still been primed in the linguistic sense too).

    I'm pretty certain that I get much lower comprehension for complicated sentence structures when I don't expect that – just one example: "and so it does seem fair to me for Geoff to have criticized it" (from a Language Log article that I was reading a few minutes ago). I figured it out eventually, but my first attempt went "fair to me for Geoff to… huh? fair for who to what?" and just sputtered at that point.
    (Though, from the same article: "and I look forward to some further discussion about what conclusions its application to in this case licenses". Um, what? I can't even figure out whether "licenses" is a noun or a verb, and I feel like there's something either extra or missing in either case.)

    Back to the original sentence – I stand by the relative incomprehensibility of NP2 (in its intended meaning, at least) to anyone who doesn't know who or what Peyton Manning is (or how exactly they are associated with Tennessee), and I also stand by my suspicion that it would have been obvious for people who do know that (which would likely include most of the respective news site's American audience).

  13. Cliff Stevenson said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 1:58 pm

    Just a day before, ESPN had this gem of a headline: "Police: McCoy definitely involved in alleged brawl", which is easily understandable, but leads to a very confusing situation where it seems like police are confirming someone was definitely a part of something that may or may not have happened. They have since changed that headline too.

  14. Sam said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    I had no trouble parsing the teaser on my first try… are we sure the "worst sentence ever" isn't referring to the headline? As far as I can tell, it seems to be saying that the allegations surrounding Manning are nothing more than "noise," whereas Cam Newton is potentially dangerous.

  15. January First-of-May said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 2:23 pm

    @Sam – are you sure it's not supposed to say that? I know I only figured out what else it could possibly mean after reading several other comments saying essentially the same thing you did, and even then not immediately.
    (This interpretation, of course, is especially obvious for the top version, where the two halves are in separate lines, but even in the other version your interpretation seems far more obvious than any other.)

    But yes, I agree, if it's really not supposed to say that, it does deserve the label "worst sentence ever" (much more so than the other sentence would, anyway).

  16. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 2:48 pm

    Ben Zimmer said:

    "And I'm not sure any amount of further tinkering could rehabilitate it from its sorry state.

    I took up the gauntlet there with a certain breezy confidence, but after 15 minutes… yeah, good point. I for one can't create an elegant sentence that conveys all that information in the appropriate style.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    Why do people pay more attention to Cam Newton['s] being upset over losing than to Peyton Manning['s] being named in a lawsuit against the University of Tennessee that alleges a work environment hostile to women?

  18. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 7:31 pm

    Yes, that's exactly the kind of thing I came up with!

  19. Phil Ramsden said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 8:21 pm

    OK, OK, OK, how about summat like:

    Peyton Manning was named in a lawsuit against the University of Tennessee that alleged that the school fostered a hostile work environment for women. Cam Newton got upset about losing a football game. Is the second story *really* more newsworthy than the first?

  20. GeorgeW said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 8:35 pm

    Jerry Friedman: I would guess, that the difference is Manning's alleged transgression was something that happened about 20 years ago when he was a kid vs a recent incident involving an adult Newton allegedly behaving childishly. (I am just suggesting an answer, not defending it).

  21. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

    @ Phil –

    That works nicely, though you cheated a bit as it's not a single sentence.

  22. Chad Nilep said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    Although each misreading is easily rectified, the clause does require at least three trips down the garden path.

    "Why has Cam Newton…" Cam Newton is subject? Nope.

    "Why has Cam Newton being upset…" Cam Newton's being has upset someone? Nope.

    "Why has Cam Newton being upset he lost received…" Being upset has received something? Yes!

    That is not to say that you didn't parse the sentence correctly within milliseconds. The point is that you are a marvel of syntactic ability – just like all other language users.

  23. Gordon said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

    When I got to *received*, I construed it as part of a subordinate clause—i.e. he was upset that his loss had received more attention than… (and onward into the next noun phrase, vainly hoping for closure).

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 9:04 pm

    Pflaumbaum: Oh, you wanted elegant.

    Of course, Phil Ramsden's excellent answer isn't really cheating.

    GeorgeW: I was just taking on the challenge of rewriting the worst sentence of all time. I'm glad you understood my version, though!

  25. Alyssa said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 9:27 pm

    I figured the article was going to be about the headline so I went into that sentence with no expectations, and I was completely unable to parse it. I fell down two different garden paths and then gave up:

    Why has Cam Newton, being upset he lost received… (lost received?)
    Why has Cam Newton, being upset he lost, received more attention than Peyton Manning, being named in a lawsuit… (wait, who's being named in a lawsuit?)

  26. Ellen K. said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 9:48 am

    Chad Nilep, "required" it a bit strong. The idea of interpreting "being" as a noun didn't at all occur to me. It wasn't necessary to go down that garden path before getting the correct meaning. In fact, without the possessive, that interpretation of "Cam Newton being upset" doesn't work for me.

  27. Zeppelin said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 3:02 pm

    I found the original phrasing to be completely incomprehensible, but I may not be as good at identifying the unmarked subordinate clause "upset [that] he lost" as a native speaker would be.

    My first parsing got as far as "being upset he lost received more". I interpreted that as a badly garbled version of something like "upset that he lost the opportunity to receive more". Probably doesn't help that "attention" is on the next line.
    On the second parsing, I got as far as "Tennessee alleging that", where I misinterpreted "Tennessee" to be the subject. Then I gave up and read the reworked version, thinking that the sentence was just ungrammatical.

    I assume it would have been easier if I'd known who these people are or what "the school" is.

  28. January First-of-May said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 5:24 pm

    As I mentioned, my second interpretation was that "the school" is Peyton Manning, and that Tennessee (the state, presumably) is suing it for alleged sexism. I interpreted "alleging" as referring to the lawsuit, not to Tennessee (as you apparently did), but that doesn't really change this particular meaning significantly.
    My first interpretation was that Tennessee is the school, and Peyton Manning is the one suing it. But that didn't really work well with "being named in a lawsuit" (which usually refers to either the defendant, or a witness, rather than the prosecutor).

    Both are perfectly grammatical – especially the former (where Peyton Manning is the school) – as long as you do not distinguish proper names by applicable references without further context (in other words, if you – like me – had never heard of Peyton Manning, and don't have any preconceptions regarding who, or what, that is).

    Incidentally, had I seen the reworked headline and not the original one, I might not have realized Cam Newton was a person either.

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