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In the comments section of the London (Ontario) Free Press, there was a frank exchange of views on the grammaticality of the headline "Man wandering in traffic arrested with gun" (3/20/2013). A small sample follows.

Susan Franks complained:

Please, as journalists try to write headlines that make sense.

Try "Man With Gun Wandering in Traffic Arrested"

I am not putting you down, I just would like to see and hear a little better grammar from professionals.

Evan Harper responded:

Speaking as a practical full-time unpaid Free Press copyediting complainer, I'm at a loss to understand what you think is ungrammatical about the headline.

louderthebetter supported Ms. Franks:

The headline is grammatically incorrect because it implies that the perp was arrested for wandering in traffic and that the gun was a tool used in the arrest […]

Evan Harper came back:

Try searching Google for "arrested-with-*" and tell me with a straight face that all of those headlines are implying that "stolen gun in downtown Seattle," "more than 8 pounds of pot," "credit card of shooting victim", etc are tools of arrest. It may shock you to learn this but natural language depends on cultural and contextual knowledge shared between communicants, not tortured attempts at "logical" syntax, to resolve ambiguities.

There are at least two issues here, it seems to me. One involves the syntax and semantics of the prepositional phrase "with gun"; and the other is the idea that bad writing must be bad grammar.

Susan Franks, louderthebetter, and those who take their side apparently think that "with gun" is meant to be an extraposed modifier of "man wandering in traffic", as the sentence-final prepositional phrases are in e.g.

Information is available about that topic.
A rumor is circulating of unexpectedly missing funds.

This construction (where a clause-final PP is syntactically and semantically linked with the subject) is relatively rare, probably because the PP is so easily misinterpreted as linked with the verb or with another post-verbal element. Thus

A woman with an umbrella opened the door

is not felicitously reworded as

A woman opened the door with an umbrella.

But this would be unwise, or perhaps we should say inconsiderate, not ungrammatical.

And in any event, as Evan explained, that's not what's happening in this case.  Not all verb-associated with-phrases are instrumental — there are plenty of other available meanings. The Merriam-Webster online entry for with gives 28 senses, only one of which is the instrumental

6 a —used as a function word to indicate the means, cause, agent, or instrumentality <hit him with a rock> <pale with anger> <threatened with tuberculosis> <he amused the crowd with his antics>

Although "arrested with X" is very common, in news stories as well as headlines, these examples are never instrumental. Rather, they seem to be the M-W possessive sense

8 a (1) : in possession of : having <came with good news> (2) : in the possession or care of <left the money with her mother>

A few examples from headlines in today's Google News:

Man arrested with suspected stolen credit cards
Man arrested with multiple bags of marijuana in his car
Man arrested with explosives
Woman arrested with BAC more than 3 times the legal limit
Piscataway man arrested with gun, hollow-point bullets
Mesa man arrested with war paint, multiple weapons
Man arrested with fake CIA badge
Two Midland Men Arrested With Drugs
Brandon man arrested with $10K cash, bayonet
2 separate travelers arrested with loaded guns in carry-ons
Orlando Middle Schooler arrested with two guns
Man with DUI warrant arrested with drugs
Felon arrested with gun in downtown Seattle
Juvenile Arrested with Marijuana at High School

Using "arrested with" to mean "arrested while in possession of" seems to be so much the norm, in fact, that it would be bad practice to write a headline of the form "X arrested with gun" to mean that X was arrested at gunpoint.

Now, I don't think there's any Zombie Rule lurking in the shrubbery about "clause-final with-phrases". And if the reaction to this headline were a consequence of a general objection to potential ambiguity, no written or spoken sentence would be safe. So it seems likely that something about the specific headline "Man wandering in traffic arrested with gun" was problematic for Susan Franks and some others. Perhaps "wandering in traffic" offers a reason for the arrest, and so readers look for some other role to assign to "with gun"?

But the syntax of this headline is simple and absolutely standard:

And the "arrested with gun" part is not only syntactically normal, it's semantically and pragmatically common to the point of being a cliche.

So the immediate leap from "something about this bothers or confuses me" to "it's ungrammatical" was unusually inappropriate in this case.


  1. Martin Coxall said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 7:16 am

    If you actually meant that he was arrested *using* a gun, I think nobody would use "with". To me, and I imagine everyone else, I'd parse that headline incorrectly.

  2. Rube said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 7:51 am

    I think Martin Coxall is right. In the conventions of headlinese, wouldn't someone who's arrested by someone who is using a gun always be arrested "at gunpoint"?

  3. Kailin @ Logs and Thoughts said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 8:00 am

    Her suggested rewrite ("Man With Gun Wandering in Traffic Arrested") seems worse than the original and initially made me think of crash blossoms.

  4. Nelson said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 8:15 am

    There's no question of ungrammaticality here, but I don't think the unusualness of this sentence should be dismissed so quickly. As the examples from Google news seem to show, in a headline like this the head noun is normally followed immediately by 'arrested' (in the one exception I found in a casual search, 'Man in his 60's arrested . . .', there is no 'with' element). In this case, there's a modifying relatively intervening. From a tree standpoint, this might all look like an NP, but the internal difference is not trivial, at least stylistically (or formulaicly?). I personally find this headline much more awkward than most examples of the type, I think for this reason.

    Of course it's silly to move from 'awkward' to 'ungrammatical', but saying 'the syntax of this headline is simple and absolutely standard' maybe shouldn't be the end of the story.

  5. Nelson said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 8:16 am

    Oops, '(modifying) relatively' should be 'relative'.

  6. He said, she said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 8:19 am

    Headline writers working for print media must cope with extra constraints. Headlines must span the width of the story; a three-column story requires a longer headline than a two-column story. Headline writers sometimes find themselves casting about for longer or shorter synonyms of a given word. (I wonder if that's a secondary or tertiary source for the sportwriter's love of awkward synonyms: "a plethora of" instead of "many.")

    Single-column stories with long headlines pose extra difficulties. Because those headlines will have multiple lines–each of which must aproximately span the width of the column–writers have to tinker with the word order. This can mean putting a prepositional phrase in a place that might seem awkward to some readers.

    This particular headline appeared with an on-line story. But perhaps it came from a print version of the same story. I don't know; I don't even know if the London Free Press has a print version.

    I agree with Mark L's original assessment ("There are ast least two issues here…") I suggest that a third issue is that for years headline writers have been constrained by the way a headline looks on the printed page, and that the techniques for dealing with those constraints remain in place (perhaps subconsciously), even for the headlines of on-line stories.

  7. R. Sabey said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 8:27 am

    To be fair to Susan Franks, she said that she'd like to see and hear a little better grammar, implying that the original had worse grammar than her suggested rewording, not that it had none.

    Evan Harper's second comment misses the point; the issue is not that there exist headlines containing the construction "arrested with N" whose context makes it clear that the N is not the instrument of arrest; the issue is this particular headline. A construction which is clear in one sentence in one context might be unclear in another.

    And the tortured attempts are not attempts to deliberately misinterpret the headline; it is badly worded, and it is all too easy to arrive at what turns out to be an unintended meaning. There might, though, be tortured attempts to explain the situation.

    Your syntax diagram vindicates Susan Franks. To get the syntax diagram of the intended meaning, you need to detach the PP and make it a child of the NP.

  8. John Roth said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    I have to agree with the complainers. While the "ungrammatical" complaint is the common use of "ungrammatical" for everything from spelling to syntax rather than the professional use restricting it to syntax, that final "with gun" is, to me at least, ambiguous enough to give me a momentary "huh, what?" reaction.

    A better headline would be "Man wandering in traffic with gun arrested." Unfortunately this leaves the word "arrested" at the end. One more word corrects it: "Man arrested for wandering in traffic with gun." Maybe we should refer the question to the Old Editor.

  9. MattF said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    The headline sets off warning lights on our ambiguity detectors, and I think a good headline should not do that– so it's a flawed headline. Which, as everyone has noted, is not the same thing as being ungrammatical.

  10. C said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 9:50 am

    The headline was totally clear to me on the first reading. It seems to me that this was a situation where the complainers noted some potential ambiguity and decided to suggest that the potential ambiguity was in fact definite and incurable ambiguity (and then to confuse that with whether or not it is grammatical). Isn't this just another example of people riding their particular hobby-horse just a bit too vigorously?

  11. Matt Gardner said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    Two points:

    First, you say that "A woman opened the door with an umbrella" can grammatically mean the same thing as "A woman with an umbrella opened the door." I don't think that's true. I forget what the name is for this construction (or if it has one, other than that it is a non-projective tree), but it seems to me like it is only allowed with forms of "be". Am I wrong on that? The only other verbs I can think of that allow a "with" construction that describes the subject are verbs of motion (e.g., "The woman ran down the street with a satchel"), but I'm not sure that should be parsed as a non-projective tree – the "with" phrase seems to me more like a modification of the manner of the motion. I'm not sure the semantics of "The woman with a satchel ran down the street" and "The woman ran down the street with a satchel" are exactly equivalent, in the same way that "Information about the trip is available" is equivalent to "Information is available about the trip."

    Second, I would agree with Nelson that the additional relative clause attached to "man" in this case makes the non-projectivity more unusual. None of the examples you gave had a relative clause attached to the subject other than the non-projective "with" clause. It's a lot more difficult for me to accept a non-projective tree when there is more than one modifier: "A man with a gun who was wandering in traffic was arrested" -> *"A man was arrested with a gun who was wandering in traffic", or ?"A man who was wandering in traffic was arrested with a gun". The first is unacceptable to me, and the second to me seems grammatical but very odd.

    The intuitions of these points could be checked by looking at the statistics of non-projective trees in the Penn treebank; I suppose I should get the data and nltk or something so that I can check them myself. But in any event, I don't think this is as simple as "the syntax of this headline is simple and absolutely standard".

    [(myl) But the PP in "arrested with X" isn't non-projective at all — it's an adjunct modifying the verb that it's immediately adjacent to, not an extraposed modifier of the subject.]

  12. chamekke said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    Actually, "Man With Gun Wandering in Traffic Arrested" immediately made me think that a man had been arrested because he was allowing his gun to walk off-leash.

    I like John Roth's proposals best. There's less scope for silliness.

  13. Ross Presser said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    @John Roth: technically, we cannot tell from the original headline WHY the man was arrested. Wandering in traffic with a gun may be the offense, or he may have been picked up on an old warrant while coincidentally wandering in traffic with a gun.

    So "Man arrested while wandering in traffic with a gun" would be a better rewording.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    Ross Presser, yes, we can tell why he was arrested. The headline, after all, is attached to an article. And that article is linked.

    And I think complaining of ungrammaticality in a headline is silly, given how headlines pretty much have their own grammar.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    At least no one peeved that the headline was ungrammatical on account of being a sentence fragment? I think there is ambiguity here only if one assumes a reader not previously exposed to very many journalistic headlines/sentences containing "arrested with X" strings. I'm not sure why one would assume that. Most newspapers' headline style assumes a hypothetical reader with a certain amount of background familiarity with certain common journalistic themes and the stock headlinese ways of expressing them, some of which vary by region or publication. (E.g., if you don't read NYC tabloids/ you might not be expected to grasp that Finest/Bravest mean cops and firemen respectively; but if you do, you are expected to grasp that and interpret those publications' headlines appropriately.)

    Does Ontario possibly share the alleged quaint British custom of unarmed cops? Because if not the other thing going on here is that at least in a US context most arrests are carried out by law-enforcement personnel whom one would expect to be routinely carrying guns. Thus, the presence at an arrest of a gun possessed by the arrester rather than the arrestee is not usually a noteworthy fact, and if one reads headlines with some sort of Gricean background presumption that they need to be short and thus any detail mentioned must be noteworthy, one will have another path by which the hypothetical misconstrual here could be avoided. (Whether the cop's gun actually came out of the holster in the course of a particular arrest might be interesting enough to be mentioned in the body of the story, but probably not headline-worthy unless the arrestee is a small child, Hollywood starlet, or other atypical arrestee where it seems vaguely ridiculous/comical/tyrannical — and thus particularly newsworthy — for a gun to have been drawn. Even then, I'd think "arrested at gunpoint" would be the more cromulent phrasing to use if you had the space.)

  16. pjharvey said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 10:43 am

    I find the other examples illuminating, especially when including the apparently awkward phrasing that's the subject of the complaint:

    Man wandering in traffic arrested with suspected stolen credit cards
    Man wandering in traffic arrested with multiple bags of marijuana [in his car]
    Man wandering in traffic arrested with explosives
    Woman wandering in traffic arrested with BAC more than 3 times the legal limit
    Piscataway man wandering in traffic arrested with gun, hollow-point bullets
    Mesa man wandering in traffic arrested with war paint, multiple weapons
    Man wandering in traffic arrested with fake CIA badge
    Two Midland Men wandering in traffic Arrested With Drugs
    None of these all of a sudden seem out of place or 'wrong' by virtue of adding the extra text, yet I had to admit some initial uneasiness with the objected headline. Maybe its the abrupt nature of the headlinese that causes the mis-parsing, that ending the sentence with 'gun' simply stops everything seemingly short. The above examples don't seem to have the same problem, particularly 'with explosives', or 'with gun, hollow-point bullets'. Of course, parsing so many examples sequentially may affect how we parse them individually too.

    I suspect you're right that 'perhaps "wandering in traffic" offers a reason for the arrest, and so readers look for some other role to assign to "with gun"', although that doesn't explain why the modified examples parse so easily.

  17. mike said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:01 am

    My particular favorite of this form of ambiguity came from a local newspaper, which reported "[Police Department] Names Officers Who Shot Man with Dementia," about which one my friends commented "Better than shooting him with bullets."

  18. Mark P said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    The problem is obviously not grammar, it's that the headline is simply bad. Editors are paid to write good headlines. A little more work was in order. Maybe "Police arrest man wandering in traffic with gun"? It might not fit, but to me it sounds better.

  19. Eorr said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:08 am

    I had a weird alternate reading when I first parsed this looking for the "incorrect" reading in that it seemed that both a man AND a gun were both arrested with wondering in traffic. Of course this reading could be discounted as absurd but it gave me a chuckle.

  20. Eorr said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    *while not with

    got with on the mind.

  21. BZ said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:14 am

    The only meaning I can get out of the headline is that the man was arrested for wandering in traffic and that having a gun was not in fact the reason for the arrest, but is incidental to it (or perhaps that the gun was arrested along with the man, but that seems ludicrous). And in fact, I cannot rule out this meaning even after reading the article. We are told that the man was pursued because he was reported wandering through traffic and that one of the charges he's faced with is having a gun, but the reason for the arrest is not explicitly stated. However, it took me a lot of thinking to find a plausible reading for the headline at all.

    The problem with reading this as "arrested at gun point" is that it doesn't sound natural to me to interpret "arrested with x" as "arrested using x". It just doesn't sound natural.

    The probably intended meaning "arrested for possessing a gun" is also not an option for me, because in my internal grammar, it just can't be used that way. And a lot of the other examples sound wrong to me too. The ones with a single word after "with" mostly have the exact same problem for me as the one under discussion. The ones with longer phrases after "with", I can parse correctly but feel that they still sound wrong. "Man with DUI warrant arrested with drugs" is a complete mess. Who had the DUI warrant? The man? Was he a policeman? Does it mean "Man with drugs arrested with DUI warrant"? Or maybe "Police, who were searching a man('s property?) because of a DUI warrant on him, found drugs and therefore arrested him"? (It's the last one. I looked it up. The full headline is "Police: Man with DUI warrant arrested with drugs" which makes it only slightly better because the police might use this "with warrant" construction in this way, but I would still be at a loss without reading the article)

  22. Neil Dolinger said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:31 am

    What about "Man with gun arrested wandering in traffic"? seems unambiguous to me.

  23. BZ said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:44 am

    @Neil, do you mean that the original headline can be parsed that way or are you proposing a rewording of it? If the latter, then I completely agree.

  24. Neil Dolinger said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    @BZ, both, kind of. I think many people here believe that the original headline is ambiguous. One of the possible parsings would match up with my suggested rewording, which also fits within any possible word limitations. I think it would also be grammatical, but I will leave the diagramming to others.

  25. Sharat Buddhavarapu said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

    @Neil Dolinger Wow, I came to the end of the article fulling endorsing John Roth's reworking of the sentence, but yours wins hands down. You also manage, at least to my mind, to pair the concepts properly. For whether or not the gun is the reason for the arrest, it is important that the man is in possession of it. And he was arrested as he was wandering in traffic. Brilliant work!

  26. Faldone said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    I think the main problem here is that "wandering in traffic" connects nicely with "man" and doesn't really leave any loose ends for "with gun" to attach to. Not with "arrested" stuck in between, anyway.

  27. Ellen K. said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

    BZ, unless you write headlines, your internal grammar isn't particularly relevant to headline grammar. At least if, as I assume, by "my internal grammar" you are referring to how you speak and write.

  28. Bonzo said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

    Ms. Frank's suggested correction caught me off-guard – I immediately thought of arrested in the sense of 'to stop, brake' as given in AHD 4th edition, so I imagined this guy wandering with a gun in traffic that had stopped for no mentioned reason, thus making me wonder what was so weird about that.

    That got me back to the original, with the same meaning, so that I started wondering why traffic had been stopped with a gun, and what was so newsworthy about a man wandering about in such traffic.

    It was only after toning down expectations, as it were, and taking a mental step back, that the for me obvious explanation became immediately apparent – namely, that the guy was arrested while wandering in traffic, and happened to have a gun.

    This might indicate the perils of approaching such a piece of text with an overly analytic mind-frame….

  29. pjharvey said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    Re Neil Dolinger's suggested rewording, "Man with gun arrested wandering in traffic": the man wasn't arrested whilst wandering in traffic.

    'Police approached the man near Wellington Road and Scotland Drive', but they presumably took him to the side of the road before arresting him, so the reworded headline suffers from a similar problem to the one published.

  30. cs said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    I don't think your definition of "arrested with…" (arrested while in possession of…) quite captures the meaining. The "with" seems to also imply that the thing that was possessed was actually a reason for the arrest.

    For example, I don't think you could say "Man arrested with multiple tatoos" unless the tatoos were somehow illegal.

  31. DEP said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

    I had an early editor who told me that it is not good enough to write so that we are understood. We must write so that it is impossible to be misunderstood. I thought he made that up, so I was astonished to find out just now that it is attributed to Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, in 95 ACE.

  32. The Ridger said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

    Structural ambiguity is almost always dependent on the actual words. Just because other words don't cause the ambiguity doesn't mean that the structure doesn't allow it. After all, "I saw the man with binoculars" is ambiguous even though "I saw the man with suspenders" is not.

  33. Nathan Myers said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

    "Man arrested wandering in traffic with gun", maybe?

    The movie "Mary Poppins" turned on a joke involving something like this: "… with a wooden leg named Smith". It seems as if the joke in this instance is that anybody considers it noteworthy. I haven't decided whether this story is only pointing out the joke, or has also made itself part of the joke. Likewise, this comment.

    The Inglese, she is the very hard language to speak.

  34. Alex Blaze said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 8:41 pm

    Hate to say it, but her re-write was worse than the original. "Man With Gun Wandering in Traffic Arrested" makes it seem like the gun was wandering in traffic and the man was arrested (I guess for letting his gun walk off in the street).

  35. Josh Treleaven said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:16 pm

    I like headline problems because they're essentially compression algorithms. You want to maximize the amount of information conveyed*, while minimizing the amount of characters used.

    *within the constraints of a language designed for conveying a huge range of different kinds of information, which by necessity contains elements that look like redundancies, else headlines would all consist of strings of abbreviations.

    I'd suggest "Armed man wandering in traffic arrested"

  36. Josh Treleaven said,

    March 21, 2013 @ 11:23 pm

    Come to think of it, why don't we see more abbreviations in headlines? Or do we? "Govt" appears from time to time, but less common "Pres". "PM" for Prime Minister is more common, but I'm not sure why.

  37. pj said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 6:56 am

    @ Josh Treleaven

    "PM" for Prime Minister is more common, but I'm not sure why.

    I'm guessing you're in the US and speaking about US headlines, but at least in the UK, 'PM' is an absolutely standard spoken abbreviation for 'prime minister', while 'Pres' is not so for 'president' – it feels extremely informal/jocular if spoken, or extremely 'vocally-representing-a-written-abbreviation'. (In 'Pres. Obama', for instance, it's surely, like 'govt.', a purely written-space-saving version of a word you would actually pronounce in full?) There's no necessity at all for expansion (mentally, or if reading aloud) of 'PM' to 'prime minister' to make a story about a 'PM' feel tonally appropriate.

    On the topic of the man in traffic, I don't think anyone's mentioned that moving mention of the gun around the sentence affects our perception of when the gun was known about. A man 'wandering in traffic with a gun' suggests to me a man who has a gun openly visible, probably in his hand, while he wanders in traffic. A man 'wandering in traffic' who is then 'arrested with a gun' sounds more like a man whose traffic-wandering aroused the police's interest, but whose possession of a gun was only discovered(/proven) upon his being stopped.

  38. George said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    I would vote for "Man Wandering in Traffic with Gun Arrested". I tried to see if anyone else had suggested it but my head began to spin.

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 10:27 am

    Not to be disagreeable, but here's "Folse arrested with Taser" (the police used a Tazer). However, I looked through five pages of "arrested with gun", and in all the examples I saw, the person arrested had a gun.

  40. dainichi said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    Compare "A man was found naked" and "A naked man was found". In both cases "naked" modifies "a man", but the meaning is slightly different. In the former, the man's state of being naked was an important part of what was found. In the latter, the man might have just happened to be naked.

    I find the difference between "A man was arrested with a gun" and "A man with a gun was arrested" to be essentially the same. In both cases, "with a gun" modifies "a man", but the implication is different. In the former there's an implication that having a gun was related to the fact that he was arrested. In the latter, it could just be extra information.

    I do not agree that "with a gun" modifies the verb.

    [(myl) One of many problems with your analysis is that these two sentences mean quite different things:

    A man with a gun was not arrested.
    A man was not arrested with a gun.

    And in the second one, "with a gun" is clearly in the scope of the verb-phrase negation.

    Another problem is that proper names don't generally take following PP modifiers, but work fine in this construction:

    *John with a gun was arrested.
    John was arrested with a gun.

    So I'd say that your analysis is DOA, in the absence of some clever surgery.]

  41. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    Mark: If your tree diagram is in fact a correct representation of the syntax, there's a big mismatch between the syntax and the semantics. Even if assuming this isn't a case of discontinuous constituency, I don't see how "with a gun" modifies "arrested." Modification is a semantic relatIon, n'est ce pas? If so, what is the semantic relationship between with-a-gun and the event of the arrest? It's certainly a lot different from most kinds of verbal modification (time, location, manner, etc.). And the property of possessing-a-gun is a property of the guy, not of the arrest. Is it even possibly for possession of something to be predicated of an event?

    [(myl) Would you prefer "is interpreted with respect to" rather than "modifies"?

    Note that "with" is often used to refer to possession or accompaniment:

    Thomas arrived with 13 wagons.
    Sally remains with her mother.

    Such PPs seem to occur quite freely as (what look to me like) verb phrase adjuncts:

    Thomas skipped down the street with five dollars in his pocket.
    Sally explored the byways of London with her new friend.

    And other ways of expressing relevant possession or accompaniment are also common:

    Freeman was apprehended in possession of a shotgun.
    The defendant was arrested in the company of his brother.

    In the passive cases, there's a relationship to forms like these:

    <someone> apprehended Freeman in possession of a shotgun.
    <someone> arrested the defendant in the company of his brother.

    But it seems unlikely on several grounds that the correct constituency is

    <someone> apprehended [ Freeman in possession of a shotgun ]

    And the general use of possessive and comitative with-phrases seems to offer a plausible alternative analysis.]

  42. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

    @Me: "Even if assuming this isn't a case of discontinuous constituency"

    An example of the rarely-seen Stacked Conditional construction.

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

    An example of the same construction in a headline that doesn't use the verb "arrest" (although the story describes an arrest): "LI women found with heroin, kids in SUV" (AP story dated yesterday, found at

  44. DNEvans said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 3:42 am

    "Man wandering in traffic arrested possessing gun"

  45. dainichi said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 6:32 am


    I need a bit more convincing.

    In Spanish, which has constructions similar to "The man was arrested naked", "naked" would match "the man" in number and gender. I'm no good at Latin, but my guess would be that in Latin it would match in case as well. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    Of course, in these languages PPs wouldn't have case, number or gender matching what it is modifying, so one would have to accept my premise that in "The man was arrested with a gun", "with a gun" is a similar kind of adjunct as "naked" above.

  46. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 9:34 am

    @Mark: "Would you prefer 'is interpreted with respect to' rather than 'modifies'? "

    No, I think that doesn't deal with the fact that on a VP-adjunct parse, there's a mismatch between the syntax and the semantics. Note that when "with" is used to express possession or accompaniment, it requires at least two arguments, since possession and accompaniment are two-place predicates. As I put it in my previous post, possession can be predicated of an entity, but not (or at least not easily) of an event. I assume you'll agree that "with a gun" in the headline is interpreted as saying something about the guy who was arrested.

    Your examples have convinced me that this doesn't necessarily involve discontinuous constituency. But note that the examples all use definite NPs (Thomas, Sally, Freeman, the defendant), and aren't amenable to being modified by phrases like "with a gun":

    * Thomas with a gun walked down the street.
    * Sally with balloons is at the front door.

    OTOH, such modification is fine with indefinite NPs:

    A man with a gun walked down the street.
    Someone carrying balloons is at the front door.

    I'm not sure if this is relevant; maybe you're right and this is just an odd coincidence, but I'm not sure it's irrelevant, either.

    Getting back to the mismatch here between syntax and semantics, here are two ideas (which are probably not mutually exclusive):

    1. The PP is really adjoined to the clause:

    [[Man wandering in traffic arrested][with a gun]]

    2. The interface between syntax and semantics is weird. (This is an application of what may be the one true linguistic universal: It's Not as Simple as You Think.)

  47. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    One more thing: This whole issue would probably be easier to deal with in the framework of construction grammar, where constituency would be less of a concern.

  48. Dan Hemmens said,

    March 24, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    How about "engunned, traffic-wandering man arrested"?

    And of course if it was a UK tabloid headline it would probably be something like "man in traffic gun arrest".

  49. Mary Kuhner said,

    March 26, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

    I tried "Gunman wandering in traffic arrested" but to my ear the man must then have shot or threatened to shoot someone; you aren't a gunman just because you have a gun.

  50. Faldone said,

    March 26, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

    As far as an ambiguous headline being a bad headline; if the main purpose of a headline is to get you to read the story, then an ambiguous headline might be the best headline.

  51. arcseconds said,

    March 27, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    How do we know that it's not the traffic that's arrested (being held up) with a gun?


  52. Faldone said,

    March 28, 2013 @ 2:24 pm

    This headline seems (to me) pretty clear but the syntax looks awful slippery:

    Pakistani teen shot by Taliban to write book

  53. M. Radhakrishnan said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 7:14 am

    Today's Houston Chronicle has one: "Austin police fatally shoot man with rifle." Absolutely could go either way.

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