Author Topic: The rightful place for a headline modifier  (Read 16723 times)

Joe Carillo

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The rightful place for a headline modifier
« on: July 25, 2019, 10:01:25 AM »
The rightful place for a headline modifier


As The Manila Times itself headlined the stunning and decisive victory of our very own legendary boxer Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas last Sunday over WBA champion Keith Thurman, “Wow!”

How clear-cut, how short and sweet! It’s next to impossible to quibble over that headline, in stark contrast to this awfully confusing headline by another Philippine broadsheet five years ago about Filipino boxer Nonito Donaire Jr.’s WBA featherweight win over South African Simpiwe Vetyeka: “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight.”

Admittedly, it’s not always easy to come up with an arresting but factually accurate news headline that fits the fixed character count of the printed or digital column. This is why like most readers, I usually just let it pass when a newspaper resorts to mild to moderate contortions in grammar and syntax to achieve that fit.

But I do think the line has to be drawn when the contortion leads to a semantic atrocity. This is precisely what good-English advocate Gerry T. Galacio did by posting this critique in the Forum after that Donaire fight: “Did the writer intend to describe Donaire as ‘stunning but strange?’ If yes, then the headline is correct. But why would Donaire be ‘strange’? I think what the writer meant to describe as ‘stunning but strange’ was how Donaire won, not Donaire himself. If that’s the case, then the headline suffers from a misplaced modifier.”

He then suggested these alternative headlines: “Donaire in stunning but strange title fight win.” “Donaire wins title fight stunningly but strangely.”

Gerry was right on the mark when he deemed that broadsheet’s headline as suffering from a misplaced modifier. Indeed, it couldn’t have been Donaire who was “stunning but strange,” but the way he emerged victorious.

But precisely why is “stunning but strange” a misplaced modifier in that headline?

Recall that by definition, a misplaced modifier is a word or group of words positioned or attached to the sentence in the wrong place, or isn’t placed near enough to the word it’s supposed to modify, so its ends up modifying the wrong word. When this happens, of course, what is said isn’t the same as that intended by the writer or speaker. This is why “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight” seriously miscommunicates how and why he won that fight.

So what do we do with the misplaced modifier in “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight?”

Gerry first suggested rewrite, “Donaire in stunning but strange title fight win,” is grammatically airtight. Unfortunately, it suffers from convoluted syntax. There just are too many disparate words jostling to modify the noun “win”—the adjective phrase “stunning but strange” and the noun phrase “title fight.”

To attenuate the convolution and make sense of that modifying phrase, it’s tempting to hyphenate those complex modifiers as follows: “Donaire in stunning-but-strange title-fight win.” But then this would just add another grammatical, even more serious, kink to that headline.

And what about Gerry’s other suggested rewrite: “Donaire wins title fight stunningly but strangely”? That’s grammatically and semantically better than the first, but I must put on record that in journalistic writing and particularly in headline writing, there’s a very deep  aversion to the use of adverbs ending in “-ly,” and that aversion gets deeper when they are used in serial succession, as in “stunningly but strangely.”

We have thus reached an impasse regarding the seriously flawed original headline and the alternatives Gerry presented, so perhaps we should consider the following third alternative that places the modifier where it rightfully should be: “Donaire wins in stunning but strange title fight.”

This time—but only after giving Manny Pacquiao a heartfelt salute for his stunning win over Keith Thurman—I’ll leave the subject of newspaper headlines for good.   

(Next: Precisely when is a verb linking or an auxiliary?)    August 1, 2019

This essay, 1,154th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the July 25, 2019 print edition of The Manila Times, © 2019 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: July 25, 2019, 10:36:33 AM by Joe Carillo »