It’s not always easy to come up with an arresting news headline that fits the fixed character count of the printed or digital column, so I tend to be forgiving when the headline writer resorts to mild to moderate contortions in grammar and syntax to make the fit. But I do think we have to draw the line when the contortion leads to semantic atrocity, as in this recent headline by the online edition of a leading Philippine broadsheet: “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight.”
(To put that headline in context, Filipino boxer Nonito Donaire Jr.—bleeding profusely from an “accidental headbutt” on the left eye—won the WBA Featherweight title by unanimous technical decision over South African Simpiwe Vetyeka on May 31, 2014.)
The following critique of that headline was posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by fellow good English advocate Gerry T. Galacio:
“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.
“The possible headlines could have been: ‘Donaire in stunning but strange title fight win.’ ‘Donaire wins title fight stunningly but strangely.’”
Of course, Gerry Galacio was right on the mark when he deemed that 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 in that boxing bout.
But, it might well be asked, precisely why is “stunning but strange” a misplaced modifier in that headline? And if so, why must we make a fuss about it? Shouldn’t we just condone and forgive it considering that the body of the news story certainly captured the correct sense of that headline anyway?
Recall now that by definition, a misplaced modifier is a word or group of words positioned or attached to the sentence in the wrong place, or is not 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.
It’s in this sense that the headline “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 Galacio’s first suggested rewrite, “Donaire in stunning but strange title fight win,” is grammatically airtight but unfortunately suffers from convoluted syntax. There just are too many disparate words jostling to modify the noun “win”—the three words in the adjective phrase “stunning but strange” and the two words in 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 Galacio’s other suggested rewrite: “Donaire wins title fight stunningly but strangely”?
That headline is grammatically and semantically much 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 deeper still to their use in serial succession, as in “stunningly but strangely.”
We have thus reached an impasse regarding the seriously flawed original headline and the two alternatives presented by Gerry Galacio, so perhaps we should consider the following third alternative that I think places the modifier where it rightfully should be:
“Donaire wins in stunning but strange title fight.”
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