Headlinese grammaticality

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"Saudi king decrees women be allowed to drive", Reuters 9/26/2017:

Elika Bergelson writes:

This feels wrong — I can't substitute any other verb in to make it okay.
Saudi king announces/says/declares/rules all fall short…

Certainly the normal pattern would be

X VERB-OF-SAYING (that) Y MODAL be allowed to VERB

e.g. "Saudi king decrees (that) women will be allowed to drive" — though that's not concise enough for headlinese. Better would be

X VERB-OF-SAYING Y to be allowed to VERB

i.e. "Saudi king decrees women to be allowed to drive".

A real AFP headline: "In shock announcement, Saudi Arabia says women to be allowed to drive" 9/27/2017.  I 'd be surprised to see that construction in non-headline prose, but it's unsurprising in a headline.

What's interesting to me here is that we have such strong intuitions about grammatical and ungrammatical — or at least idiomatic and unidiomatic — headlinese.

Update — And I completely missed the idea that this might be a "mandative subjunctive", although we've discussed that construction a number of times, e.g. here. In such cases, the verb is in the "plain form", which for a passive would be simply "be". In my defense, the mandative subjunctive is kind of old-fashioned, not say obsolete — and I don't think I've ever seen it with elided that. The standard examples are things like

The duke insisted that the cutlery be made of pure silver.

Are such examples grammatical with that omitted?


  1. Bev Rowe said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:21 am

    Where can one find a good discussion of headline grammar, perhaps associated with the rather similar grammar of public notices?

  2. Karen Conlin said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:29 am

    Isn't that a type of subjunctive mood construction?

    "Ordinance requires ferrets be leashed outdoors"

    "Kidnappers demand ransom be paid in shekels"

  3. RP said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:32 am

    I interpreted it the same way as Karen Conlin.

  4. Karen Conlin said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:36 am

    Sorry for the double post. I believe it's a type of mandative subjunctive, as explained in Greenbaum's Oxford English Grammar, 5.25c. There's an implied "that" between "decrees" and "be," almost certainly because of headline space restrictions.

  5. Bartleby said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:39 am

    Karen Conlin took the words right out of my mouth.

  6. Alvin Grissom II said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:42 am

    This headline didn't bother me.

    One important difference is the the Reuters headline is performative — and there is nothing bothersome (to me) about the headline given this, aside from the that-deletion, which is common in space-constrained headlines. The usually tenseless (I think) grammar of headlinese facilitates some some odd effects, but I wouldn't have thought twice about this one.

  7. Ollie Sayeed said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:55 am

    I interpret that AFP headline as having a missing copula – "Saudi Arabia says women are to be allowed to drive".

  8. Hans Adler said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:56 am

    This non-native speaker immediately understood the construction as a subjunctive and was puzzled that the blog post itself didn't explain what the problem with the sentence was supposed to be.It is also intuitively clear to me that the sentence works with "decree" (and would work with some other verbs, such as "command" or "insist") but wouldn't work with "announce", "say", "declare" or "rule". Karen Conlin's explanation (mandative subjunctive) seems to explain this neatly.

  9. Don Osborn said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:57 am

    I had the same question Karen did about the subjunctive.

    On a broader topic, has anyone compared structures of headlines and of tweets? Of course sometimes a tweet is just a headline with link, and tweets serve various diverse functions. However, to the extent one is trying to convey something substantive in a concise way on twitter, it seems that some of the tricks used in headline writing are applicable (from a practical point of view).

  10. Cervantes said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 8:02 am

    If you're worried about space in a headline (or anywhere else for that matter), you can just say "may" rather than "be allowed to."

    Saudi King decrees that women may drive.

    However, I agree, "that" can be elided in a headline, it's not a problem, though I would not elide it in ordinary prose.

  11. Hans Adler said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 8:14 am

    It seems to me that this is a rather mild example of a garden path sentence.

    "Saudi king decrees women …"

    At this point we expect that "women" will turn out to be the object of whatever verb is to come, or that it is the subject of an infinitive with "to".

    "Saudi king decrees women be …"

    At this point it is clear that we are dealing with neither of the two previous alternatives, but with a subjunctive.

    I guess the following factors contributed to my not even seeing a problem:

    – The confusion lasted only for one word.
    – I hadn't committed to a definite parsing of the sentence so far, but was expecting one of two alternatives. (Both of which were wrong, though.)
    – I read more old books and have less exposure to contemporary colloquial English than most native speakers.

  12. flow said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 8:28 am

    Of course a monarch, all the more a Saudi King, will use a mandatory subjunctive when addressing their subjects… What did you think? ;-) I do grapple quite a bit when presented with samples of headlinese on this blog, yet this time around I feel puzzled others didn't quite naturally read it the way it was intended.

  13. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 8:33 am

    I see nothing odd or unusual about the construction.

  14. Karen Conlin said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 9:15 am

    Interesting comments, all around. I learn a lot from everyone who participates.

  15. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 9:45 am

    "Deems women able to drive"?

  16. Ellen K. said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 10:01 am

    The headline sounds fine to me, as does the example at the end, when the "that" is removed, "The duke insisted the cutlery be made of pure silver." And, translated out of headlinese by a change of tense and an added "the", the headline sounds okay to me as regular English, with no need to add "that": "The Saudi king decreed women be allowed to drive."

  17. David L said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 10:16 am

    I agree with Karen Conlin and Ellen K. — this seems altogether unexceptionable to me.

  18. rosie said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 10:38 am

    This situation is different from the situations which would call for the sort of construction in Karen Conlin's examples. To take her second example, the kidnappers demanded that someone else must do something. By contrast, the Saudi king doesn't need to make someone else let women drive. His decree is performative. By making it, he lets women drive. There is no reason to use the subjunctive here. So:

    Saudi king decrees that women are allowed to drive

  19. Ellen K. said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 10:52 am

    I see it differently, Rosie. The King does not personally enforce the laws. His decrees means that those who enforce the laws need to allow women to drive. So, yes, he is asking someone else to do something.

  20. Levantine said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

    rosie, a decree is an order, and since this order has yet to be realised, the subjunctive is appropriate here.

  21. Sniffnoy said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

    I don't think there's anything wrong with eliding the "that", as other commenters above have demonstrated. But this headline still seems wrong to me; it just doesn't read like a mandative subjunctive. I just wouldn't expect one with "decrees". Let's use one of Karen Colin example's above, modified slightly. The following examples read fine to me:

    1. King requires ferrets be leashed outside [OK, this one sounds a little odd, but not ungrammatical]
    2. King demands ferrets be leashed outside
    3. King insists ferrets be leashed outside

    But not the following:

    1. *King decrees ferrets be leashed outside
    2. *King declares ferrets be leashed outside
    3. *King proclaims ferrets be leashed outside

    I don't think you can do a mandative subjunctive with "decrees".

  22. Belial Issimo said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 12:43 pm

    King in Saudi Woman Drive Ban End

  23. Karen Conlin said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

    The list Greenbaum provides doesn't include "decree," but neither does it claim to be exhaustive. It merely offers "examples of words followed by that-clauses with the mandative subjunctive."

    I would suggest that, absent an exhaustive (complete) list, common sense be applied.

    Ask, decide, demand, intend, insist, order, propose, recommend, request, require, suggest, urge

    are all included in the list from Greenbaum. I would offer the possibility that "decree" is a rather uncommon word, and therefore not included as an example. However, I would go on to suggest that it's clearly in the same vein as the words in the list.

    Make of that what you will, by all means. I make no claims to being an expert, but I think I do a fair job of discerning intent from written instruction.

  24. Karl Weber said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

    "Saudi King: Let Her Drive!"

  25. RP said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

    Decreeing is much more akin to ordering or requiring than it is to declaring or proclaiming.

  26. David L said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

    How about: Saudi King decrees ladies be drivin'

  27. bratschegirl said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

    Belial Issimo wins the Interwebz for today.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 4:02 pm

    COCA results:

    [require] _nn* be: 27
    [require] that _nn be: 283

    for whatever that's worth.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

    Now that the question of ownership of the Interwebz has been settled, I'd like the original headline better without the "be", but I'd really prefer suggest "Saudi king decrees women may drive" or "Saudi king lets women drive".

  30. John Swindle said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

    @Alvin Grissom II: The Reuters headline isn't performative in that it doesn't in itself allow women to drive. The headline itself isn't a royal decree.

    @Jerry Friedman: To me the original headline without the "be" would imply immediate effect, as would "… decrees women may drive" or "…lets women drive." In this case we're talking about next June.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 4:59 pm

    John Swindle: Good point.

  32. Andrew Usher said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:04 pm

    This seems ugly, but I don't know any obvious improvement. I'd like to imagine the headline writer went through the possibilities, too, but probably not. Mainly, this doesn't sound quite right for a mandative subjunctive – a construction I'm quite comfortable with – perhaps because of the verb 'decrees'; in addition, that verb is always followed by 'that' in ordinary usage.

    So the indicative would be fine to me, but 'decrees women are allowed to drive' sounds like a judgement, not a change in policy which is naturally the emphasis here. Preserving the brevity, one could write 'decrees women _now_ allowed to drive', with no verb needed at all; if it takes effect next June, is that too late for it to be described as a change 'now'?

    To present it as a future plan, one would say 'Saudi king promises women will be allowed to drive', though that's a little longer (I think 'promises' is best there, for a note of finality 'declares' – 'says' could be used for brevity, it being understood that if the King 'says' something on a policy matter, it is binding.) and keeping 'decrees' there would unfortunately still sound a little odd.

    But given that headline conventions require the omission of 'that', then if 'decrees' must be used you're going to end up with something like this. With regard to Mr. Friedman's alternatives, omitting the 'be' would create the same problem as the indicative would, and the others were I imagine considered too informal, in addition to John Swindle's concern.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  33. Martha said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 12:06 am

    Count me as another who finds the headline unremarkable, and like Hans Adler, it took me a minute to figure out what the problem was supposed to be. (Although unlike Hans Adler, I am a native speaker, FWIW.)

  34. George said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 1:39 am

    Assuming that Karl Weber's beautifully succinct interpretation of the headline's intended meaning ("Saudi King: Let Her Drive!") is correct, then this seems to me to be a pretty classic and banal subjunctive, albeit with the 'that' elided.

    So add me to the list of those who find nothing particularly odd about it.

  35. Joyce Melton said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 1:41 am

    Saudi King mandates women be allowed to drive

  36. Sarah said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 2:41 am

    I have no problem with this headline – it seems a perfectly normal one to me

  37. Vilinthril said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 6:04 am

    Seems perfectly fine to me, though a bit high-brow.

  38. Craig said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 6:46 am

    I too fall in the camp who find this usage completely normal. I had to read the blog piece to find out what was confusing, and I'm still not sure I get it.

  39. AntC said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 7:05 am

    @Vulcan "Deems women able to drive"?

    No: women have been able to drive all along — as evidenced by women being competent drivers in the rest of the world. (And probably more than a few Saudi women driving illicitly/in protest at the ban.)

    Like others, I must be so inured at headlinese, I didn't blink or even need a double-take. OTOH I had already seen news pieces about it.

  40. Martin Grimshaw said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 8:01 am

    Imperative perlocutionary speech act? Are 'that' clauses and infinitive constructions just a matter of style? More than one way to flog a cat.

  41. Jan said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 8:41 am

    The jussive subjunctive is in regular use in the Mother of Parliaments. Her Majesty's Royal assent is still confirmed in Norman French "La Reine Le Veult".

  42. RP said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 9:13 am

    I had assumed that "veult" was the Norman French 3rd person singular indicative, corresponding to mod.Fr. "veut". @Jan, are you suggesting that it is subjunctive, corresponding to mod.Fr. "veuille"?

  43. Caroline Shimakawa-Devitt said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 11:17 am

    "Are such examples grammatical with that omitted?" – At least in British English, emphatically yes!

  44. BZ said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

    The problem with "may" is that it may (ha!) mean "may or may not". Granted, with "decree" it's not likely, but it's still possible to misunderstand.

  45. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 3:02 pm

    BZ: I don't see how that's a problem. The king isn't decreeing that women must drive; he's decreeing that they may (or may not) according to their individual choice.

    Now if the headline said "Saudi king decrees women may be allowed to drive", I agree that would be problematic. But I don't think anyone's suggesting that revision.

  46. Jason Huntington said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

    Saudi king: Let Women Drive

  47. Haamu said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 9:06 pm

    The President's Press Secretary (@PressSec), tweeting today:

    "@POTUS has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico."

  48. Andrew Usher said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 9:32 pm

    Augggh! Headline grammar is proliferating!
    (… has authorized waiving the Jones Act …)

  49. Chas Belov said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 2:35 am

    +1 unremarkable headline

  50. Kaleberg said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 11:20 am

    How about affirms, rules, orders, declares?

  51. Andrew Usher said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

    Those other verbs have just the same problem: they normally require 'that' at least when used with a subjunctive.

  52. Anthony said,

    October 9, 2017 @ 10:33 pm

    The current issue of the Economist has this:

    Blame a 1920 law known as the Jones Act, which decrees that trade between domestic ports be carried by American-flagged and -built ships, at least 75% owned and crewed by American citizens.

    Subjunctive after decree, even in subjunctive-wary British English. The 'that' helps.

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