Drink-drive killer girlfriend did what?

« previous post | next post »

A tip from Twitter:

The headline: "Man who urinated on woman at Drake concert before drink-drive killer girlfriend started brawl over avoids jail", The Mirror 9/11/2017:

Ben Zimmer writes:

Even after reading the article I'm not sure how this headline is supposed to work. What's the complement of "over" supposed to be?

Maybe the killer girlfriend started the brawl over, i.e. started it again after it had ended. It's true that the article doesn't really support this idea, but whatever.

Update — David Beaver figures it out:

My best pre-reading-the-article parse of “drink-drive killer girlfriend started brawl over”  was that it meant “the drink drive killer that the killer’s girlfriend started a brawl over”. I was proud of that parse. But I was in fact wrong. I suffer from the same problem as Ben here, namely that I speak English.

So here’s the apparent intention: There was a man who urinated on a woman at a concert by Drake, and later, the man's drink-drive-killer girlfriend started a brawl over him, but she avoided jail.

A resumptive pronoun is a pronoun that occurs where you might expect a gap. So this example illustrates (among other things) a resumptive gap, the inverse of a resumptive pronoun. The gap is sitting in what is supposed to be an extraction island in a subordinate clause, which is itself in some sort of attempted unbalanced subordination relation with a previous gapped clause. If we pop enough acid we should be able to parse it eventually.

And Geoff Nunberg commented:

“Resumptive gap”! PhDs have been awarded for less.

More twitter commentary here.


  1. dw said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

    "Start over" is not a common usage in British English, so I'd be surprised if that was the intent.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

    I'm guessing "before the killer girlfriend started a brawl over the urination".

  3. Joseph Post said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 12:40 pm

    I read it as "Man who urinated on woman at Drake concert, before [the] drink-drive-killer-girlfriend-started-brawl [i.e., the brawl started by a girlfriend who had previously killed someone in a DUI accident] [was] over, avoids jail" — Joe Post

  4. Rube said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 12:41 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: That's my guess, too, but it doesn't really work for me. Maybe if it was "started brawl over IT"?

  5. BZ said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

    Yeah, multiple questions after reading the article.
    1. Usually a terse construction like "drink-drive killer girlfriend" is only used when the incident is presumed to be previously known by the public. In this case it does not seem to be true. Odder still, the exact phrase appears again verbatim at the start of the article.
    2. The headline is unusually verbose except for the afore-mentioned noun pile in the middle
    3. It sounds like either "before" or "over" is extra. Since various forms of "urinating over" appear in the article several times, it may be that the "over" came from there, but if that's the case (and the "on" is removed), the preposition isn't merely stranded, it's hopelessly lost, and may never find its way home.

  6. boynamedsue said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 1:13 pm

    As a near native speaker of British Headline English, I can say that this headline is actually ungrammatical in that dialect. The "over" is correctly parsed as a failed attempt to subordinate, it's not really possible to subordinate backwards in BHE and if you are doing it properly you shouldn't even be trying.

    The basic structure of the BHE sentence is NP+ V (+NP/comp.): Hitler dies.

    Or NP + prep. + NP: Bonkers Hitler in mother testicle loss shocker!

    Or NP + V (+NP/comp.) + prep. + NP: Hitler probe man racist slur breaks internet in China

    I'd translate this as:

    Drake concert man escapes jail over woman urination sparking drunk-drive-killer girlfriend brawl

    That's much clearer.

  7. boynamedsue said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    Oooh, I forgot existential "NP"

    "Trump hair fire prevention measure deadlock" > Deadlock exists in the current efforts to agree a measure which will prevent Donald Trump's hair from catching fire

  8. ShadZ said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 2:02 pm

    The article identifies Drake as American, so I don't trust anything it says!

  9. maidhc said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

    The clause that starts with 'who' must modify 'man' because there's nothing else for it to modify. But how far does it go? At least up to 'concert' anyway.

    Starting from the end of the sentence, there's a verb 'avoids'. Where is its subject? 'Girlfriend' already has a verb so it just be 'man'. So, "man … avoids jail".

    'Before' through 'brawl' forms another clause plausibly enough, but 'over' is left without a comfortable place.

    "Girlfriend starts brawl over" is possible, meaning that she restarts it. But it seems an unlikely thing to say. Otherwise it seems as though there's a word missing. It should be "over him" or "over it".

    I suspect the problem is that it's trying to make the 'who' do double duty, not only as "man who urinated" but also "man who girlfriend started brawl over".

    Also, 'jail'? What's wrong with good old British 'gaol'?

  10. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

    No one nowadays says 'gaol'. In ordinary speech we don't normally say 'jail' either: the standard term for a place of penal detention is 'prison'. 'Jail' is headlinese, I suppose because it is shorter. The distinction between jail and prison as different kinds of institution is distinctively American, in my experience.

  11. David Morris said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

    @Joseph: my problem with your suggestion is that that 'before [the brawl] [was] over' would be me much better phrased as 'during brawl'.

    Has anyone contacted the newspaper about this?

  12. Rubrick said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

    I believe Ben Beaver's solution is not quite right. It's pretty clear from the first sentence of the article that the headline is referring to the man avoiding jail, not the woman:

    "A man who urinated on a woman at a Drake concert at Manchester Arena and triggered a row between his drink drive killer girlfriend and another fan, has avoided jail ."

  13. Rubrick said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 5:56 pm

    Um, I mean David Beaver. Ben Beaver is a fine juggler but not, as far as I know, a linguist.

  14. Andrew Usher said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 6:08 pm

    Of course, that should be "no one _writes_ 'gaol'" given the pronunciation is the same. Regardless this headline is not grammatical is any possible interpretation and deserves jail/gaol as much as that man and woman. (presumably one would expect 'gaol' because Brits normally shun 'Americanisms').

    The article also makes it clear the the headline writer meant to emphasise that the girlfriend avoided jail, not that the man did – but no matter how the mess in the middle of it is taken, 'avoids jail' can only refer back to 'man' because of the following 'who'; even in a headline 'man who [CLAUSE]' can't stand alone as it would be meaningless.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  15. John Roth said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 6:28 pm

    This is about as close to word salad as I've ever seen without either alphabetizing the words or using a randomize function on them.

  16. Lazar said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

    @Andrew Usher: Here in the US, a TA in an English lit class informed us that Oscar Wilde had been locked up in Reeding Goal.

  17. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 11:24 pm

    botched edit of "Man who urinated on woman at Drake concert before drink-drive killer girlfriend started brawl over it avoids jail"?

  18. Keith said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 3:53 am

    @Andrew Usher

    There's definitely something in what Lazar wrote; I'm sure that if a headline-writer typed "gaol" the chelling-specker would correct the word to "goal"

    presumably one would expect 'gaol' because Brits normally shun 'Americanisms'

    "Jail" has definitely been the acceptable in the UK since I was in junior school. I remember seeing "gaol" and thinking that it should be pronounced /ɡɑːɔl/, following the rule that a letter g not followed by a letter i or e should be what we were taught in infant school as "hard g", as opposed to "soft g" (i.e. /d͡ʒ/) as in "gin" and "gem".

  19. ajay said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 3:58 am

    a TA in an English lit class informed us that Oscar Wilde had been locked up in Reeding Goal.

    He was substituting for the Ancient Mariner, who was taken off the team after the captain realised he was only stopping one of three.

  20. Paul Kay said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 8:04 am

    I agree with those who say it's the leg-pissing man, not the drive killer girl friend, who is reported to have avoided jail. From the page:

    "A man who urinated on a woman at a Drake concert at Manchester Arena and triggered a row between his drink drive killer girlfriend and another fan, has avoided jail ."

  21. Ian Preston said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 8:32 am

    I have convinced myself that the intended complement of "over" is "man". I would guess that the headline began as something like "Man who urinated on woman at Drake concert and [whom] drink-drive killer girlfriend started brawl over avoids jail". Someone then replaced "and" with "before" to make clear that the urination and the brawl were linked. So it as if the simpler grammatical-looking headline "Man who urinated and girlfriend defended avoids jail" became the not-quite-but-almost-grammatical "Man who urinated before girlfriend defended avoids jail".

  22. Paul Kay said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 8:52 am

    But then further on there's this!
    "Woman spared jail after drink-drive 'game' which left ex fighting for life avoids prison again after brawl"

  23. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 10:02 am

    'Man who urinated on woman at Drake concert who drink-drive killer girlfriend started brawl over avoids jail', I think – in which case it looks like someone has objected to two 'whos', and made a mess of changing it.

  24. bratschegirl said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 10:47 am

    "Drink-drive-killer girlfriend starts brawl over Drake-concert-urinating man, avoids jail" is about the best I can do to make this comprehensible, but I've left out that he was urinating on a woman.

  25. RP said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 11:07 am

    To be honest, I understood it almost immediately. I'm not sure what you all found so difficult.

  26. Sally Thomason said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 11:52 am

    Same here, RP. This man urinated on some poor woman. Before he did that, his girlfriend (who at some earlier time had killed someone while driving drunk) started a brawl over him. The man avoided jail. Doesn't say whether the girlfriend also avoided jail.

  27. Lazar said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

    @Sally Thomason: Isn't the thinking that the brawl started after the urination, though?

    I'm a competent non-native reader of British Headlinese, but I found this one unparsable. I'm tempted to interpret the second clause as an adventurous (and for me ungrammatical, though at least conceivable) expansion of the English prepositional passive: the girlfriend "is started a brawl over", i.e. someone started a brawl over her.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 2:16 pm

    Regrettably, when you post a link to the story on facebook the headline comes up as the abbreviated "Man who urinated on woman at Drake concert avoids jail," which leaves all of the weirdness on the underlying incident and none on the headline's phrasing.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

    For "brawl over" to be an idiom with a well-understood meaning for BrEng tabloid readers even though totally opaque to outsiders wouldn't surprise me, and I would be interested to learn its meaning and etymology (e.g. it could be a clipping, but of what unclipped fuller phrase?). It is thus with some disappointment that I infer from the more knowledgeable commenters above that this may have just been a syntactic screw up.

  30. JPL said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 5:29 pm

    I like the ingenious testing of the grammatical limits here. I would like to paraphrase the headline as: "Man who urinated on woman at Drake concert and who later drink- drive killer girlfriend started brawl over avoids jail." The one Rel Pron "who" is doing double duty, for the subject of the main clause ([ ] urinated) and the object of the Prep (over [ ]) in the subordinate clause. How often does this kind of construction occur? With the coordinate clause construction it would be OK: "Man who urinated on woman at Drake concert and later drink- drive killer girlfriend started brawl over avoids jail." Reversing the main/subordinate clauses also seems weird or not possible: "Man who drink- drive killer girlfriend started brawl over after urinated on woman avoids jail." If you put in the pronoun here (before "urinated") it expresses a causal (reasons) relation between the urinating and the killing which is not necessarily there in the original. (We recently had cases of Rel clauses where the expected gap is filled by a nominal expression.)

  31. Andrew Usher said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 6:26 pm

    Ah, you must be right about the construction, assuming there's any sense behind it. Ungrammatical, without a doubt, Clever? Not sure.

    I know it's Headline-ese but I would not refer to as a 'brawl' an instance of one person assaulting one other that did not (here could not) strike back. That sort of laziness points me toward thinking that headline writers are not clever enough for that.

  32. Robert W M Greaves said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 11:20 pm

    I haven't read the story, but after reading the headline several times I would interpret this as the unfortunate woman at the Drake concert having been urinated on twice, once by a man who has avoided jail, and then afterwards by drunk-drive killer who a girlfriend (not sure whose) started a brawl over.

    The man who urinated on a woman before the drunk driver killer, who a girlfriend started a brawl over, (urinated on her) avoids jail

  33. Len said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 7:15 am

    Without reading the article, but after reading the summary beneath the headline, I wonder if this could be fixed by the simple addition of the pronoun "him":

    "Man who urinated on woman at Drake concert before drink-drive killer girlfriend started brawl over him avoids jail"

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 8:41 am

    RP and Sally Thomason: The difficulty is with "over". Does it have a complement, maybe "it" or "him", that has been suppressed for no reason? Or is it part of "start over"? Of course now we know.

    By the way, I agree with Andrew Usher that a "brawl" at a concert etc. consists of a lot of people fighting. I was interested to see, though, that the OED, AHD, and M-W don't say anything like that. (The AHD doesn't even say that a "melee" involves more than two people.)

  35. dana said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 9:57 am

    Not sure how to email these in, but I saw one today that made me laugh (sorry about the video link, it's the only documentation I can find for the headline I saw on a scrolling newsfeed):

    It reads: "US Coast Guard ships head to Caribbean islands devastated by Irma" The intended meaning is clear, but I had a brief moment of "How gruesome, and why would they do that?"

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 10:40 am

    Is the concern that this wasn't a "brawl" because it did not involve more than two individuals or just that it wasn't a "brawl" because the second person involved didn't hit back? I don't necessarily have semantic trouble with a two-participant brawl as long as they're both actively engaged in trying to hit each other.

  37. James Wimberley said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 5:01 pm

    H/t to Ajay.
    I can't even parse the embedded NP "drink-drive killer girlfriend" unambiguously. Did the girlfriend kill while driving drunk, or did she kill a different drunk driver?

  38. Andrew Usher said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 10:38 pm

    J.W. Brewer:

    Both. Although etymology doesn't support it, 'brawl' is usually used to imply multiple participants. And for the latter, it makes her actions sound less serious than they were (unless he intentionally provoked her, which I doubt very much).

    And yes, everyone is right about 'over' being the real grammatical problem. Changing to 'over him' would make the meaning basically clear, even if there's still more ambiguity than normal in speech (but perhaps not for British headlines).

RSS feed for comments on this post