Why shoot the dead ones?

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Man shoots dead robber, says a South African headline today. And for an instant one's confused mind asks, "It's hardly necessary to shoot the dead ones, is it?"

But then common sense kicks in, and one re-parses, and the crash blossom is dissolved.

The re-parsing involves making the assumption that this is what linguists call a "Heavy NP Shift" construction: when a direct object is long, complex, or in some way heavy with pragmatic import, it is permissible to place it last in the clause, after everything else in the verb phrase. For example:

The report stripped [ ] bare of its wrapping of euphemism the sordid reality of what this disgusting man had actually been doing. The empty brackets show where the direct object could have gone, and would obligatorily have gone if it were short: The report stripped his story bare of its wrapping of euphemism. That's a much better style choice than the very dubious alternative: ?The report stripped bare of its wrapping of euphemism his story.

The trouble with the South African headline is that robber is much, much too short to make this construction a reasonable one to choose. If the direct object had been much longer, no one would ever have been tempted to mis-parse:

A man shot dead a robber who broke into suburban house while the occupants were home watching rugby on television.

With this crash blossom it is all but impossible to imagine that it was a witty attention-catcher devised intentionally by cunning headline writers. This one was just a dumb choice of the wrong word order when the right one (Man shoots robber dead) took the same amount of space and had absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Hat tip: John D. Vink.


  1. empty said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 8:11 am

    No one would even mis-parse "A man shot dead a robber", I think.

    I myself misunderstood "Man shot dead robber" twice; my second attempt had him shooting a robber of the dead.

  2. Rubrick said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    Expanding on empty's point, I don't think length is the critical issue in this case. "A man shot dead a robber" is, as he points out, unambiguous (though awkward). Conversely, "Man shoots dead robber who broke into suburban house while the occupants were home watching rugby on television" is just as bad as the original. It's the "a" in Geoffrey's counterexample which saves the day, not the "weight" of the postpended phrase.

    In the original, the apparent NP "dead robber" simply has a stronger pull than the phrasal verb "shoots dead".

  3. Dierk said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    Whoever stripped the [in my opinion necessary] article off the robber should rethink his career choice: 'Man Shoots Dead a Robber' might still not sound that good but is perfectly understandable.

  4. Dan T. said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    A dead robber can hardly break into your house, unless you're in some sort of horror movie.

  5. Rodger C said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 9:29 am


  6. Robin said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    This is a common mistake in South Africa, though something that would seldom be seen in the more formal setting of newspaper writing. The word-order derives from the Afrikaans formulation of a sentence:

    "Ek het hom dood geskiet" is directly translated as "I shot him dead", rather than the correct "I shot and killed him".

  7. Mick 0 said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    So it wasn't a case of plunking a thief in a cemetery? Headline would've worked for that.

  8. language hat said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    Robin: There is nothing wrong with "I shot him dead"; it's perfectly good English.

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    @Robin: Maybe I'm misunderstanding your comment, but "shot him dead" is fine, albeit fairly colloquial, in U.S. English. But yeah, your suggested version, "shot and killed him", sounds much better and newsier to me. (Incidentally, "shot him to death" also exists here, though that's more common with certain other verbs, as in e.g. "stabbed him to death".)

  10. Mel Nicholson said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    @Rubrick: Marking the noun phrase with an article disambiguates the sentence because "dead a robber" cannot be confused with "a dead robber" — but this doesn't resolve the question because headline mode drops all articles.

    @GWK: When trying to construct an example without articles that displayed how much length was a factor in parsing, I came up with

    Murder? Man shoots dead robber with terminal illness

    At I was writing it, it seemed perfectly clear that I could only be talking about a man who died as a result of being shot. As soon as I read it back, it became clear that not only was the ambiguity in tact, but also that the mis-reading has been strengthened. It seems like a strong example of a difference between the grammar of the speaker/writer versus the hearer/reader.

    It was only when I was trying to produce a novel sentence that this incorrect impression that the ambiguity was gone could appear. When I was trying to modify sentences, the dual reading was always apparent to me.

  11. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    It's prolepsis, as in "Make one move and you're a dead man."

  12. Kylopod said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    What I find most curious about this headline is that I don't think transitive verb-adverb phrases like "shoot dead" sound very natural. The natural impulse is to break up the phrase and place the adverb at the end of the sentence: "Man shoots robber dead." I think writers keep the phrase together only as a last resort, when the alternative would be even more confusing. And it actually becomes grammatically incorrect if the direct object is a pronoun: "The man shot dead him." Thus, it's surprising to me that the headline writer would have even come up with this construction, since it seems to go against natural speech.

  13. sbfren said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    Yes! This exact thing caught my eye a few years ago when I saw a headline on a Reuters UK news feed: "Police shoot dead old man." Not only momentarily confusing, but also somewhat dismissive, I thought…

    At the time, I did a google search, and got about 9500 hits for "police shoot dead" (mostly from ex-US sources), and about 800 for "police shoot * dead." Rerunning the search now, the numbers have evened out considerably.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    Searching today's Google News for "shoot dead" yields

    Maoists shoot dead teacher
    LAPD shoot dead suspect who confronted them with assault rifle
    RAB shoot dead biker
    Photos: Indonesians shoot dead Priest and Son
    Motorcycle gunmen shoot dead judge in Philippines
    Police shoot dead terrier after woman and dance partner mauled in Sydney
    Leftist rebels shoot dead village official in S. Philippines
    Gunmen shoot dead prominent scholar in Pakistan
    Gunmen shoot dead British ship captain

    So there's a lot of it going around.

  15. David L said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    A fairly common alternative is "fatally shoot" (searching Google news turns up a number of examples). It sounds less idiomatic to my ear than "shoot dead" but it allows sentences that avoid ambiguities and crash blossoms. Fatally shooting an old man is somewhat less reprehensible than shooting a dead old man…

  16. mollymooly said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    @David L: Indeed, "fatally shoot" more strongly suggests that killing (or even hitting) the target may have been accidental, whereas "shoot dead" suggests it was probably intentional. This may be relevant in prejudicing any resulting criminal trial.

  17. David Donnell said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    Apparently David L's suggested alternative was taken to heart by the SA newspaper. The headline has been changed to "Man fatally shoots robber".

  18. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    It's like rolling the dough flat or rolling flat the dough, but not *rolling flat dough.

  19. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    Unfortunately, English doesn't have a verb like German erschießen, "to shoot dead," "to shoot and kill."

  20. George said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    Frankly, I have always found the expression a little strange although I am sure I have used it. I am not sure how to analyze the sentence 'X shoots Y dead.' Apparently, 'dead' is an adjective modifying Y. Could X shoot Y injured, unconscious, dying, etc.?

  21. Adam said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    That reminds me of the funniest joke in the world.

  22. sarang said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    Most likely occurs in two steps: 1. a lazy but harmless choice of the "shoot dead an X" form (lazy because maximally modular), 2. mechanical excision of the article because everyone knows you shouldn't have articles in headlines. Parsing is hysteretic; you can snip away at a sensible sentence until it means something totally different and not see that it's changed, if you have the original parse firmly lodged in your head.

  23. Rubrick said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

    In light of myl's examples, I'm afraid what's going on here is another misgeneralization of the misinjunction to not split infinitives. Some journalistic style guide, real or imagined, is causing headline writers to decide "shoot dead" shouldn't be interrupted.

  24. Peter Taylor said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

    I'm intrigued by one of the headlines Mark Liberman dug up:

    Police shoot dead terrier after woman and dance partner mauled in Sydney

    An interesting asymmetry in the way the two victims are described. I suppose the "woman" was mauled first and the "dance partner" then tried to intervene and was bitten for his or her troubles.

  25. Bloix said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    George – X couldn't shoot Y unconscious, but X could beat Y unconscious. X could also burn the steak black, run the boys ragged, plane the surface level, cut the corners square, sing the note flat, and drink his scotch neat.

  26. George said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    @Bloix: So, how should we analyze these sentences? Since there are limited numbers of adjectives that can be used, are these just fixed expressions?

    1. John is killed by a shooting: Peter shot John dead.

    2. John is injured by a shooting: *Peter shot John injured.

    3. John is rendered unconscious by a shooting: *Peter shot John unconscious.

  27. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 9:28 pm


    Drinking scotch neat is not drinking it until it is neat. I assume that was a joke. But singing a note flat seems different too, because it is flat from the moment it emerges from your mouth, oftentimes. Those other cases have to do with producing a result on an already existent entity. There you could put an adverb: singing it flatly, where you wouldn't in the other cases.

  28. John Lawler said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    @George –
    There is no single way to analyze these sentences, George. Sorry. This is what's called a "rule conspiracy" that makes many sentence types fit into a single sentence frame like Subject Verb Object{?} Adjective, where the nature of the "Verb-Object" relation is subject to {?}, which is a very broad range.
    For instance, from memory, some possibilities, with different predicates but the same Subject Verb Object{?} Adjective structure:

    They shot him dead.
    They found him alive.
    They buried him alive.
    They painted it black.
    They called it black.
    They named it "Peace Vermillion".
    *They buried him dead.
    They dug him up alive.
    They dug him up dead.
    They knew him alive. (who was alive?)
    They delivered him alive.
    They kept him alive.
    They wanted him dead.
    They expected him taller.
    *They expected him tall.

    etc. Georgia Green had a paper about this template in an early 1970s CLS volume, but they don't appear to be available online. Too bad; it's not like anybody is reading them in the University Libraries any more.

  29. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

    And then there's "Raid Kills Bugs Dead."

  30. Mark F. said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    I can accept the * on "They buried him dead" in isolation, but "They buried him dead, but dug him up alive", although an unlikely scenario, seems like a perfectly good sentence to me.

    I can't put my finger on it, but "Man shoots robber dead", although unambiguous and perfectly headline-grammatical, sounds a little off to me, like the kind of thing a journalist would be reluctant to use. Perhaps it sounds too dramatic, in placing the word "dead" at such an emphatic point.

    sbfren — It's interesting that you observe a change over time. Any theories as to why?

  31. Kevin said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:57 am

    @George I think "Peter shot John unconscious" is only strange because shooting someone doesn't usually lead to unconsciousness. "Peter beat John unconscious" sounds perfectly natural to me.

  32. Joe said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:53 am

    For people who are interested, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a discussion of these issues (pp. 261-266). Basically, we are talking about predicative complements (PCs).

    To sum a bit, there's three factors to keep in mind. One concerns whether the predicative complement is required or optional. "He shot the man dead" is an example where the PC "dead" is optional. In "He drove her mad," the PC "mad" is required.

    The second concerns whether subject-oriented or object-oriented. Usually, if there is a direct object, the predicatice complement (the following NP or Adj P) is object oriented: "he drank the scotch neat." However, we do find constructions like, "he wrote his poety drunk," where "drunk" is subject-oriented.

    Finally, the third factor is whether the PC describes a property of the object at the time of the situation ("She considered him unreliable"), in which case the PC is depictive, or whether the PC describes a change in state, again, "He shot him dead"), in which case it is resultative.

    It's an interesting question about whether a "resulative" PC (the one involving a change in state, like "He shot him dead") is somewhat idiomatic or is related to the semantics of the verb. In a language like Finnish, an accusative case on the object would indicate that the person or thing shot was dead. I'm just speculating here, but I wonder whether there is a kind of inherent telicity in the situation that licenses resultative PCs (in this case, a PC like "dead" in "shoot X dead" is allowed because "dead" is the terminal point of the situation of shooting someone/something but others are disallowed because they are not only intermediary points). But since I haven't thought how other optional resultative PCs fit into this scheme, I wouldn't rely too much on this hunch.

  33. J-M-M said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 4:16 am

    The comments discussing the "[Subject} shot [object] dead" sentences are, I think, missing the point. This headline isn't one of those and, for me, it isn't really a crash blossom either, though it is a construction I don't expect to see in print.

    The verb here is "shot dead", and the second word is a firmly attached part even though it is the first word that is conjugated. Following the many great battles that took place near the railroad tracks near my grandmother's house, neither my mother nor my aunts would have been confused or concerned if they had heard, "Tommy was shot dead but shot dead Ricky anyway!" And shooting dead robbers happened all the time.

  34. George said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:43 am

    John Lawler and Joe: Thanks for your explanations.

    Joe: "I wonder whether there is a kind of inherent telicity in the situation that licenses resultative PCs (in this case, a PC like "dead" in "shoot X dead" is allowed because "dead" is the terminal point of the situation of shooting someone/something but others are disallowed because they are not only intermediatary points)."

    Good point, there is something that limits the allowable PCs. Terminal point would not preclude 'shot injured' as this could be the terminal point of the action. Maybe, idiomatic is a better explanation.

    Terminal point might explain 'paint the house white' but not 'paint the town red' (do we still say this?)

  35. Joe said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 7:18 am


    Again, I haven't thought about it enough, but my idea is that an optional resultative PC would have to represent a change in state that is the furthest point in a continuum that is inherent in the situation (state of being wounded, state of being critically injured, state of being dead). So no further shooting can make the object dead. The change in state is complete. Another example would be "wipe the slate clean." The idea is that the situation of wiping a slate clean is such that no further wiping can result in change in state in the object (that is, making it cleaner). Again, this wouldn't be all PCs but a limited class of optional resultative complements.

    As I said, this really is complete conjecture. I wouldn't be surprised if it were merely idiomatic (paint the town red is obviously idiomatic, since "red" can't be omitted without a change in meaning). It was the Finnish example that got me thinking along these lines, since in Finnish, the combination of ampua (the verb shoot) and an accusative objective conveys the sense that the object is dead, even though the adjective dead is not mentioned.

  36. George said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    Joe: Again, good points.

    At the risk of being argumentative, we don't say, 'X stabbed John dead,' 'beat John dead' or 'poisoned John dead.' So, we cannot freely substitute verbs with a 'dead' PC. I am thinking this has become an idiom from a resultative beginning.

    Yeah, 'paint the town red' would, I think, be idiomatic where 'paint the house red' would not. We could grammatically (but not esthetically) paint the house any color we wish. But, we would not paint the town anything but red.

  37. Ellen K. said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    Well, except idiomatic can mean how people use the language, so a phrase that's not an idiom can still be called idiomatic, including "paint the house red". But, yes, not an idiom like "paint the town red".

  38. George said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    Ellen: I was using the term 'idiomatic' in the sense of a set expression since we cannot freely vary the verb or the predicate.

    1. He shot John dead.
    2. *He shot John injured.
    3. *He poisoned John dead.

  39. Ellen K. said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    But your readers can't read your mind, and don't know that you aren't using the word in it's more common meaning. Not until we get to your next sentence.

  40. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    The natural parsing reminds me of The Naked Gun:

    COMMISSIONER: Ladies and gentlemen, I would now like to introduce a most special American. Tonight, he is being honoured for his 1000th drug-dealer kill.


    FRANK DREBIN: Thank you, thank you. But, in all honesty, the last three I backed over with my car. Luckily, they turned out to be drug-dealers.

  41. iching said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 1:20 am

    Some phrases that occur to me as fitting into the shoots the robber dead pattern (including previous suggestions in this thread) are:
    drains the swamp dry; drinks the glass empty; planes the surface level; rolls the dough flat; pulls the rope tight; wipes the slate clean; strokes the fabric smooth
    Looking at these it strikes me that the verbs are all ones that involve a transition between two states, where the adjective refers to the end-point state, which in each case has an entropy (disorder) level greater (more uniform, regular, predictable) than the beginning state e.g. there are innumerable ways a rope can be slack, but only one way it can be tight (in Euclidean geometry at least where there is only one straight line between two points). I propose the term "entropy-increasing PC", for this construct. The only similar example I can think of that doesn't have an entropy-increasing result is paints the house red, where red can be replaced by any other colour.
    The alternative word order is of course:
    drains dry the swamp; drinks empty the glass; planes level the surface; rolls flat the dough; pulls tight the rope; wipes clean the slate; strokes smooth the fabric and paints red the house
    This word order seems fine to me (although somehow more poetic sounding than the first word order), even when it is not obligatory because of the "heavy NP-shift" referred to by GKP.
    It is of course the standard headlinese practice of dropping articles that produces crash blossoms from this second word order, because the adjective seems to refer to a beginning state (before the action) rather than a state resulting from the action, and so seems to imply that the action was unnecessary. But for me it is no worse than any of the many other ambiguities in headlines due to article dropping. I think "X shoots dead robber" even sounds more natural to me in a headline than "X shoots robber dead", which would be more natural in other contexts, in the same way that the headline "X dies suddenly" feels more natural than the elsewhere normal "X suddenly dies", but I am not sure why.
    Feel free to expunge this post as part of the admirable "zero-tolerance of long, boring, pointless posts" LL policy. There will be no hard feelings I assure you.

  42. George said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 6:11 am

    @iching: If I had a vote, it would be against expunging your comment. Maybe it is a little long but not boring or pointless. You make some interesting points.

    "It is of course the standard headlinese practice of dropping articles that produces crash blossoms from this second word order, because the adjective seems to refer to a beginning state (before the action) rather than a state resulting from the action."

    Yes, it appears to change a predicate adjective to a attributive adjective.

  43. George said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 6:23 am

    iching: One more thought on your comments. These sentences with the predicate, unlike an attributive adjective, also carry a presupposition that the state of the direct object has been changed.

    "X shot Y dead" presupposes that Y was alive before the shooting where "X shot dead Y" does not.

    "X painted the house red" presupposes that the house was not red before the painting.

  44. iching said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    George: Thanks for the kind words. As a linguistic novice who enjoys thinking about words and language I will try to learn some of the terminology so as to be able to contribute more coherently (e.g. predicate/attributive adjective).
    I am very interested in your comment that "X shot Y dead" presupposes that Y was alive before the shooting where "X shot dead Y" does not
    Do you mean that the man shot the robber dead presupposes that the robber was alive before the shooting whereas the man shot dead the robber does not? I can't detect any difference in meaning myself — they both seem to me to presuppose the robber was previously alive. I wonder if this difference is maintained in versions of English other than the Australian English I speak?
    Or are you referring to the "headlinese" version dropping articles? As I noted, this causes an ambiguity because MAN SHOOTS DEAD ROBBER can mean either "the man shoots the dead robber" or "the man shoots dead the robber".
    BTW I thought of another example to add to my list:
    the man washes the clothes clean or the man washes clean the clothes leading to the earth-shattering headline MAN WASHES CLEAN CLOTHES
    As with all the other examples this can lead to some head scratching (why wash clothes when they are already clean?) before one realises "clean" is being used as a predicate adjective, not an attributive adjective.

  45. George said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    @iching: "I am very interested in your comment that "X shot Y dead" presupposes that Y was alive before the shooting where "X shot dead Y" does not."

    "X shot the dead Y" means that Y was dead at the time of the shooting., i.e. there was no change in Y's status as a result of the shooting.

    "X shot Y dead" presupposes that Y was alive at the time of the shooting and, as you suggested, there was a change in Y's status from alive to dead.

  46. iching said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    @George: Thanks. We agree completely. The inclusion of "the" removes all ambiguity, since putting the before the adjective means it can only be attributive not predicative.

  47. David said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

    Funny, this. I agree with previous comments that "man shoots dead robber" sounds unnatural, while not ungrammatical. I would spontaneously have chosen "man shoots robber to death". In Swedish, however, putting the 'result' in front of the object is perfectly acceptable: it would be something like "man sköt ihjäl rånare" (newspaperese uses the past tense, "sköt", not the present tense "skjuter"). Here, "ihjäl" means "to death" (literally, it actually means "into Hel", the pre-Christian kingdom of death; the Christian Hell is "helvetet", orig. 'the punishment of Hell'), and can be combined with other verbs, such as "slå ihjäl någon" (to beat somebody to death), including metaphorically: "förra veckan arbetade jag ihjäl mig" (last week I worked myself to death – note the V2 order).

    In other cases, the 'result' must be put after the object: "man sköt rånare medvetslös" (man shot robber unconscious), like in English.

  48. Julie said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

    "Man shoots (the) robber dead" is the only way I would express the idea that is intended by the headline.

    "Man shoots dead robber" is a perfectly reasonable, unambiguous sentence…and tells me that the robber is already dead. Adding "the" changes the meaning, but results in an odd sentence that I would never say.

  49. Private Zydeco said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 2:22 am

    "With this crash blossom it is all but impossible to imagine that it was a witty attention-catcher devised intentionally by cunning headline writers. This one was just a dumb choice of the wrong word order"

    Dr. Pullum, I don't mean to protest overmuch, but…prithee: how do you know?

  50. Chad said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    The problem is the entire phrase "shoots dead". It almost seems redundant until you realize that shooting doesn't always result in killing, but either way it's a phrase that reeks of casualness and doesn't belong in a headline. Using typical headlinespeak, the headline I'd expect is "Man shoots, kills robber." It's the typical shortening of sentences–using a comma in place of the word and–and gets the point across, and even with the Oxford comma it still sounds more professional than the term "shoots dead".

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