January 19, 2007

The headline that wasn't not quite right

I opened today's Register-Mail to page 3, and found a big, above-the-fold headline that read

The winter that wasn't not done yet
and I immediately thought, hey, this'll be good. What a stunning example of overnegation, or rather, bad copyediting, eh?

Turns out, it's even better than that. If you think about the phrase "the winter that wasn't done yet" (or its uncontracted counterpart), that doesn't sound especially headliney, does it? A complete noun phrase? And it has too many verbs: the expected version would be something like "winter not done yet", to make a short, snappy assertion with a minimum of auxiliary verbs. Unless...

Unless the subject was not "the winter", but rather, "the winter that wasn't". It is the subject of a perfectly headlinese verb phrase "not done yet" (omitting the main verb "is"), and indeed in the body of the article we find the clear inspiration for this particular title:

It turns out that the winter that wasn't, isn't done with us yet.
It is not normally considered grammatical to put a comma between subject and verb, but you see it a lot with this sort of heavy subject phrase, especially when the verb in the relative phrase ("wasn't") is very similar to the clause's main verb ("isn't"), as here. It's also a bit of a flourish in the first place to use the "the X that is/was/n't" construction—that wasn't what, exactly?—but, again, quite idiomatic and well-known. So the source sentence is perhaps not perfectly standard, but well within the range of rhetorical variation.

It's just when you convert it to a headline that everything goes terribly wrong. Unfortunately, without "isn't" there to block it, and no punctuation to let the reader pause, nothing is overriding the seemingly more likely parse that lets "wasn't" gobble up the rest of it into a single modifier for "winter", until you get through it and think: WTF?

How could they have fixed it? Well, headlinese traditionally only includes relative phrases when absolutely necessary; "winter not done yet" would probably do just fine here. And half of the cuteness of the original sentence comes from the parallelism between "wasn't" and "isn't"; but if they really wanted to use the whole thing, all they needed to do to block the wtf reading was to put a colon in there, or even a question mark:

The winter that wasn't? Not done yet
But of course, nobody asked me.

"I see NCLB much like the initiatives that created the high-density housing projects of the War on Poverty era. Both are programs that were created with good intentions, but are simply, irretrievably broken and end up doing much much more harm than the original creators would ever have thought and go on for much longer than should ever have been allowed." --Tori O'Neal

Posted by blahedo at 8:41pm on 19 Jan 2007
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