Two candidates for the Trent Reznor Prize

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A candidate for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding, in the form of a BBC News teaser:

A penguin chick that was hand-reared by zoo keepers in Devon who used a puppet to impersonate an adult dies.

This has been languishing on my to-blog list ever since Tim Macdonald sent it in a couple of weeks ago. It's not nearly as tricky as the gem that Geoff Pullum posted about yesterday:

[H]e callously instructed his lawyers to add to her family's pain by implying the 13-year-old ran away because she was unhappy at home during days of cross examination.

But the original intent of the Trent Reznor Prize may exclude Geoff's specimen:

Matthew Hutson, noting my interest in embedding, has observed by email that Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is responsible for "the most tricky and yet correct and clear sentence by a rockstar in an interview that I have ever seen":

"When I look at people that I would like to feel have been a mentor or an inspiring kind of archetype of what I'd love to see my career eventually be mentioned as a footnote for in the same paragraph, it would be, like, Bowie."

We've never enforced the "by a rockstar" part. Other TRP awards have gone to cartoonists:

I'd hate to make payin' a man an idiotic sum of money to burn my wife into a fine powder and stick her in a $400 bowlin' trophy 'cuz she requested it into somethin' weird.

And to intellectuals:

… it is nonetheless tempting to speculate about whether there exists — and, if so, what the properties are, of — a universal grammar of combat.

But so far, all serious candidates for the prize have (more or less) adhered to the "and yet correct and clear" part. Geoff's example is certainly correct; but as he explains, it's far from clear.


  1. Ray Girvan said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 5:58 am

    "Penguin fed by puppet dies at zoo" is a surprisingly verbose headline. You'd expect "Devon zoo puppet penguin dies".

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 6:24 am

    I think fully standard Br.Headlinese would have had:

    Tragic Devon Zoo Puppet Rearing Penguin Baby In Death Shock

    [(myl) Tim Macdonald suggested "Devon zoo keeper puppet feeding penguin chick death"]

  3. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 7:43 am

    Puppet Penguin Passes

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 8:10 am

    Penguin Chick Dies — Formal Funeral Planned

  5. Zythophile said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    Hmmm – your various attempts at "Britheadlinese" prove once again that those not trained in a particular artform have surprising difficulty imitating it. And Plaumbaum, yours is particularly amiss – we don't capitalise every word in British headlines, that's strictly an American habit.

  6. Adrian said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    "Passes" for "Dies" is also an Americanism

  7. Peter said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    @Zythophile: Ray Girvan’s effort seems pretty passable to me — quite natural and clear, but with a nice piquancy from the subtle nounability of dies.

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    Out of interest, the Western Morning News header is equally straight:

    Abandoned penguin chick dies at zoo

    Maybe the solemnity of subject stopped them going for the usual jokey formulas? Compare the earlier Sun headline when the chick was being reared …

    P-puppet p-parent

    … with its allusion to a long-defunct biscuit advert. They were probably cursing that it was at Torquay's Living Coasts rather than P-Paignton Zoo.

    I doubt if we'll see "P-puppet p-parent p-penguin p-perishes", but I'm sure it has crossed some headline writer's mind.

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    @ Zythophile – I'm English actually. My plea is that I was trying to take it to extremes for comic effect. I have no excuse re the capitals, except to say it's a tendency not a rule – see Sky's website, for instance.

  10. The Tensor said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    Interestingly, it's a nearly-unprocessable example of triple embedding if you un-passivise the second-level clause:

    A penguin chick that zoo keepers in Devon who used a puppet to impersonate an adult hand-reared dies.

  11. Steve Kass said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    The BBC also today followed up on “Remains of fall death man exhumed” with “Remains exhumed over missing kidney row”. Not as good as last year’s “Slaughtered lamb head teacher resigns from Kent school”, though.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    The most interesting recent Brit hed I saw was "Government retreats as Pickles forced to eat own tikka masala" which was quite substantively wacky but didn't seem to follow any of the genre conventions. But maybe the item headings on the Guardian's "editor's blog" aren't proper heds at all?

  13. Joe Fineman said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

    Cf. "This is Jack, who built the house the malt the rat the cat chased ate lay in". I forget where I read that spoof.

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

    @Joe Fineman:

    Couild be Ian Watson's The Embedding

    This is the malt that the rat that the cat that the dog worried killed ate.

    … as discussed at Tenser, said the Tensor.

  15. ASG said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

    It's a bit more studied and self-conscious than the provided examples — and I know the author is not universally loved 'round these parts — but I was simultaneously appalled and delighted by this sentence in David Foster Wallace's posthumous The Pale King, and it seems to fit the general tenor of what you're describing here. (I'm particularly disgusted/charmed by the bit following "to which tiny lifeless nothing town", which I've taken the liberty of boldfacing.) Fasten your seat belts:

    I doubt you need a whole diagram to anticipate what came down, nor much of a primer in US class dynamics to understand, of the eventual five students placed on academic probation or forced to retake certain courses vs. the one student formally suspended pending consideration of expulsion and possible referral of the case to the Hampshire County District Attorney, which one of these was yours truly, the living author, Mr. David Wallace of Philo IL, to which tiny lifeless nothing town neither I nor my family were at all psyched about the prospect of having me return and sit around watching TV for the at least one and possibly two semesters that the college's administration was going to take its sweet time considering my fate.

    The sentence is so awful that DFW himself apologizes for it in a footnote.

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