That talkative pandemic…

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Daniel Deutsch wrote:

I had to read this headline a couple of times.

"The pandemic cost 7 million lives, but talks to prevent a repeat stall"

Is the pandemic talking? Is it trying to prevent a repeat stall?

That garden path failed to tempt me, perhaps because of the fact that the word "talks" in headlinese is almost always a noun rather than a verb. But once you take that first step, it can be hard to get back…

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 6:09 pm

    The comma removes any ambiguity. The potential compound verb (*the pandemic (cost but talks)) cannot have a comma, so it's not a possible reading.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 6:38 pm

    I got it the very first time as I read through the sentence. Absolutely no difficulty whatsoever in understanding what was meant; "talks stall" is a common locution in contemporary American English. Nearly a million ghits just like that.

  3. Robert Coren said,

    April 22, 2024 @ 9:30 am

    @Dick Margulis: I respectfully disagree. The comma is not grammatically required, but such commas appear all the time, perhaps reflecting a brief pause if the phrase was being spoken aloud. "He said X, but possibly meant Y" doesn't read as"wrong" to me at all.

    I don't think i would have misread the headline in the wild, but Daniel Deutsch's commentary primed me to pay attention.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2024 @ 4:52 pm

    A challenge for those with good corpus linguistics search skills: find a text (subsequent to the abolition of slavery) where the same noun-or-noun-phrase is the subject of active-voice "to cost" in one sentence and also the subject of active-voice "to talk" in another nearby sentence in the same discourse. Not saying it's impossible but probably comparatively rare. Of course, maybe it's relevant that this is already the extended metaphorical sense of "to cost" that can be predicated of human beings, as in "that jerk cost me my job!"

    I guess maybe another corpus quest would be to see if there are any in-the-wild instances of "talks to prevent" or "talks to VERB" more generally where the "talks" is (or at least could be on a defensible/plausible alternative parse) a 3d-person-singular-present-tense verb rather than a plural noun.

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