"Sondland implicates Trump, says Pence"?

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This headline sent me down the garden path for a couple of seconds:

I interpreted the first couple of lines as "Pence said that Sondland implicates Trump", which is implausible enough. And then it was "Pompeo knew that Pence said that Sondland implicates Trump". But "so-and-so knew" is marginal as an attributive tag, and so for both linguistic and logical reasons I quickly realized that it's "Sondland implicates Trump in quid pro quo, and says that Pence and Pompeo knew about it".


  1. C said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 7:36 am

    It's that particular form of headline-ese that is common in the US non-existent in the UK.

    You could argue the first comma should be a semi colon or full stop/period, but if you replace the second with "and", it's way less confusing.

  2. rosie said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 7:41 am

    Which goes to show how bad is the practice among American headline-writers of putting just a comma where "and" is idiomatic: it leads you down the garden path. This particular example would've left me there, because your first interpretation is at least grammatical. And not knowing the minutiae of this latest case against Trump, I wouldn't have any reason to reject a grammatical interpretation as implausible, especially as no other apparent interpretation is grammatical.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 8:02 am

    I don't know about Canadian newspapers, but I haven't seen this comma usage anywhere outside the US. In the US it's indeed common.

  4. Cervantes said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 9:11 am

    Easy solution for headline writer: replace first comma with a semicolon.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 9:55 am

    Replacing the first comma by a semi-colon does not work for me; I am left wondering what on earth the part after the semi-colon is intended to communicate. If the newspaper style guide will allow, I would re-cast it as follows :

    Soundland implicates Trump in quid pro quo, claiming both Pence and Pompeo knew

  6. C said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 9:57 am

    Agreed, Philip. It's the second comma that's the real problem, especially to those who rarely read US headlines.

  7. Tom Dawkes said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 10:14 am

    All that's needed is to write: "Soundland implicates Trump in quid pro quo, and says Pence and Pompeo knew". There's plenty of room with the third line to fit that in.

  8. daveR said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 12:24 pm

    Soundland sounds so much better than Sond—-!

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 12:28 pm

    Nobody else had a moment of "As a quid pro quo, Sondland implicates Trump", that is, Sondland implicated Trump in return for some kind of favor? I admit that for anyone following the U.S. news even a little, "quid pro quo" in this context brings the accusations against Trump to mind, but I also saw the headline "Gordon Sondland chooses to save himself, not Trump", suggesting that there was an advantage for him in implicating Trump.

  10. Ed M said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 1:20 pm

    Headlines in WaPo and other online news sources are changed frequently as a result of software monitoring click-throughs. Headline writers are looking for the highest click-through rates, and are not so much concerned with good writing as they are with grabbing eyeballs.

  11. D.O. said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 3:41 pm

    While quid pro quo means mutually beneficial exchange tit for tat is a mutually detrimental exchange. But the latter phrase is not a baby-speak for this for that, as I naively thought, but a variant of tip for tap, which meant blows all the way back.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 9:12 pm

    Ed M:
    That may be so, but they are still presumably written by humans, so this linguistic criticism is still appropriate. It's hard to imagine that that ambiguity was intended. Substituting 'and' for the last comma would still be the best solution.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  13. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 2:36 am

    Might there be an actual benefit, as measured in click-throughs, to having ambigous headlines? People clicking through just to see what's it about?

  14. Bert said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 4:34 am

    German punctuation strongly requires a comma every time a subordinate clause meets a main clause. That would make the headline "… in quid pro quo, says, Pence, Pompeo knew". I am not sure wether this would make it better understandable, but I find it interesting that no one brings up this spot as a place for a potential comma, since, from a German perspective, it's the most central building block of punctuation.

  15. Easterly said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 4:46 am

    I recently came across this great example of how the choice between using a comma and a semicolon between clauses can make a crucial substantive difference:

    The Senate passed it Tuesday, 35-14, hours after the House passed it, 138-61.

    Try that with a semi-colon after "14".

    Given the frequency of comma splices in news writing, I'm actually not sure what the reporter meant to say.

    The original is the first sentence of the fifth paragraph here:

  16. Easterly said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 6:37 am

    More fun with headlines:

    I see they've fixed it, but https://www.theguardian.com/us used to have a head that read: Dolly Parton's Heartstrings review / Cuntry singer sells us a bum steer

    I rarely have that problem typing "country", but "county" I have to check every time.

  17. Philip Anderson said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 8:04 am

    That looks like a variation on the well-known “King Charles I walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off” (or “King Charles I walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off”.

  18. Philip Anderson said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 8:19 am

    I don’t have a problem with quid pro quo being used (ironically) to mean tit for tat, a payback.
    Jerry, my first thought was that it was Sondland’s quid pro quo, i.e. revenge.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 11:41 am

    Philip Anderson: Thanks, I'm not alone!

  20. Andrew Usher said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 11:27 pm


    That would be wrong in English, so the writer would never think of doing so. In modern English a comma is not allowed between a verb and its following predicate.

    And yes, this is a clear difference with German which seems to abound with 'useless' commas, for English speakers generally feel a comma should indicate a slight pause in speaking, while "says Pence and Pompeo knew" would have no pause in it.

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