What other people might put it

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Comedian Doug Stanhope is unable to sleep at night over the way his friend Johnny Depp is being pilloried as a wife-abuser by Amber Heard (she says he hit her in the face with a cell phone); so he did the obvious thing any friend would do: he submitted an expletive-laced article about his angst over the situation to The Wrap. (It has 9 shits, 7 fucks, and one asshole, all cloaked in partial dashification by The Wr––'s cautious c–nsors.) But this is Language Log, not Celebrity Embarrassment Log, and my topic here is syntax. Stanhope and his girlfriend Bingo "have watched Amber Heard f––– with him at his weakest — or watched him at his weakest from being f–––ed with," and he now believes it is time to "tell the f–––ng truth" about his friend:

Bingo and I were at Johnny's house for most of that Saturday until just before the alleged assault. We assumed initially that his dour mood was because of his mother's death the day before. But he opened up in the most vulnerable of ways that it was not only his mother, but that Amber was now going to leave him, threatening to lie about him publicly in any and every possible duplicitous way if he didn't agree to her terms. Blackmail is what I would imagine other people might put it, including the manner in which he is now being vilified.

What interested me is that the underlined part, when quoted in the Metro (a tabloid-format newspaper distributed free in the UK, through which I get most of my news about celebrities — Adele is moving in next door to Jennifer Lawrence, by the way), came out like this:

Blackmail is what I would imagine [how] other people might put it.

But the insertion of how doesn't help at all: *what I would imagine how other people might put it is no more a grammatical noun phrase than *what I would imagine other people might put it. The Metro corrects one ungrammatical phrase to a different one. Can't anybody write simple grammatical English?

One acceptable correction would have been to quote (or charitably misquote) Stanhope thus:

Blackmail is [how] I would imagine other people might put it.

But the most obvious correction would have been to use the verb that Stanhope was probably intending to use when he began the sentence:

Blackmail is what I would imagine other people might [call] it.

There are of course vague threats of a libel suit drifting around now that Amber Heard's attorneys have studied the article: Stanhope is effectively accusing Heard of blackmail. Putting that together with the embarrassing syntactic slip should remind us all never to write for the press while impaired by either bourbon or cocaine. (Not that I am suggesting that Stanhope might have been using either of those, but it's just what we should all be reminding ourselves of, you understand.)

I hope it is clear that I do not read the celebrity pages of the Metro (or for that matter The Wr–p) for any reason having to do with Kim Kardashian's butt or Posh Beckham's diet (she was recently spotted having pizza with Becks in Notting Hill) or any other showbiz miscellanea. My interest is purely in keeping abreast of developments in the syntax of contemporary journalistic English. Nothing to do with any fantasies about the lives of Hollywood stars or their relationships or hobbies.

Johnny Depp is in Sweden, by the way, playing guitar with his band, the Hollywood Vampires. I'm a reasonably good second guitarist; did you know that?

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