Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Noun phrase juxtaposition confusion

Associated Press caused a twitter hoo-ha when they mistakenly led a lot of their followers to think that there had been yet another air crash, this time involving the plane carrying the bodies of people who were killed in the recent Malaysia Airlines crash. They phrased it like this:
Breaking: Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven.
Lots of people reasonably thought that this meant that this plane had crash landed in Eindhoven. It didn't; it meant that the bodies from that crash have been taken to Eindhoven, where the plane has landed safely. You can read the Gawker article linked above for all the responses (my favourites are those who say 'well, AP style is 'crash-land' so it clearly didn't mean that').

One of the tweets, about halfway down the Gawker article, says that 'AP should have thrown some tactical commas/hyphens/apostrophes in that one'. Bear with me while I derail my linguistics blog into the realm of punctuation for today's post.

A hyphen would do the job of disambiguating: crash-land is, as noted above, AP's style for this term. However, it would not provide the right interpretation. You could possibly stick one in to give 'Flight-17-crash', but that's very ugly. Nope, a hyphen won't do it here.

An apostrophe isn't going to help either: you could just about make it mean that the plane had crash landed (again, undesirable) by putting it in lands: Flight 17 crash land's in Eindhoven means that the 'crash land' (new nounification) of Flight 17 is in Eindhoven. Ugly and confusing. Adding it to Airlines to give a possessive doesn't remove the ambiguity. Everywhere else, an apostrophe is just a smudge on the paper, hanging around, getting in the wrong places.

What we need is something to indicate that the 'crash' belongs with the subject of the sentence and the 'lands' is the verb, on its own, separated from 'crash'. In speech, we use intonation to indicate phrasing, but in writing we need to use either unambiguous wording or punctuation to do the job.

So, what can we use to indicate that the break between the subject and the rest of the sentence is between 'crash' and lands'? Poor old commas often get abused in this way. Their original function was a breathing mark, and we are told when we're little that they indicate a short pause, so perhaps that's why people stick them in any old place, not really thinking about the rules (which are hard, actually). Here, the writer is presumably thinking that one would work following crash, to give this:
Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash, lands in Eindhoven.
You may be looking at this and thinking that it's a good rewrite and works perfectly well to remove the ambiguity. Well, it does that, but it's wrong. (It would also add a different ambiguity in American headlinese, but that's another matter.) You simply can't put a comma after a long subject to indicate where the subject ends. It's not allowed. You never ever use a comma to indicate a subject break. Ever. There is only one time when a comma can be at the end of a subject, and that's when it's doing one of its other jobs. For instance, maybe there is a relative clause offset with commas in the subject:
The plane, which was carrying bodies back home, landed in Eindhoven. 
There, the subject ends with the comma after home, and it's fine. But the comma does not function to indicate where the subject ends; that's just coincidence. (Also fine without: The plane which was carrying the bodies back home landed in Eindhoven.)

So there isn't actually any way in which commas/hyphens/apostrophes would have helped here. It just needed a simple rewording (which it swiftly got). But I still see essays all the time which make the same mistake of thinking that commas can just kick about any old where. As I said above, I have some sympathy for those who don't know the rules, because the rules are really tricky. But there is one very easy way to learn them painlessly, and that's to read a lot. Any books will do, as long as they've had the attention of an editor at some point in their life.

A final point: note that, although the rules of punctuation are consciously learnt (or not learnt), the rules of grammar are subconsciously known by everyone. We all knew that the problem here was that there was an ambiguous sentence due to there being two possible subjects of the sentence, depending on where the verb began. Not many people were able to articulate that that was the problem, and probably about 95% of people wouldn't be able to say what the subject of that sentence was, but everyone knew exactly what the problem was. Because humans are great at language, whether they know it or not.

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