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Quit verbing my nouns

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By Art Trujillo

The waiter at a Santa Fe restaurant greeted us with the usual spiel: “My name is Brian, and I’ll be your waiter for the evening.”

There are only two ways to respond to this kind of greeting: “That’s nice!” and “My name is Art, and I’ll be your customer for the evening.” But rather than poke fun at a formality which at least shows, well, formality, I was struck with the non-sequitur that followed.

He reminded us, “If you need anything at all, my name is Brian.” Well, now, that means if we don’t need anything, his name is Isaiah or Justin.

It’s a question of a conditional expression in which the implication — to language nit-pickers like me — implies the server has more than one name, depending on the needs of the customer.

The conditional non-sequitur already got covered in a column last year. Yet, being in this trade exposes me to more unusual uses of the language than the average person. It’s my passion.

Headlinese long has been a game of many not even remotely connected to journalism. Notice how often certain actions serve as a prelude to a made up headline. For instance, I was in a fast-food restaurant with a colleague when I decided to blow the straw wrapper right at him. I got him right smack on the cheek, but just as fast, his wrapper came at me, practically caving in my chest.

As journalists, we cracked up over the imagined headlines in the next day’s Optic: “Copy editor suffers chest injuries in straw fracas in local restaurant.”

My friend’s version came closer to what people would rather read: “Optic staffers arrested in straw wrapper melee.”

And last year, when some night-tripping prankster kept rearranging letters on the marquee at the SERF theater, some thought the culprit was me (or, as my English teacher at Immaculate Conception School, Sister Mary Migrainia, would say, “it is I”).

One fellow church member came up with something like, “Optic Proofreader Arrested for Vandalizing Marquee.” Someone else, more concerned over the assumed risks involved in climbing tall ladders at midnight, said, “Optic Employee Hurts Leg in Fall from Ladder While Rearranging Movie Titles.”

It’s amazing how people instinctively conjure up headlines. But if I was/were the villain, wouldn’t I admit it? If you were I/me, would you?

By their nature, headlines need to be telescopic. We generally omit “to be” verbs such as “was,” “am,” “is,” “are,” and “were.” And we usually write them in the present tense. Ergo, something like “Man assaults woman” doesn’t necessarily mean he whacks her daily, but that he did it some time in the past. And even in fatalities, most editors tend to use the present. I tried to convince one of my bosses that since a person dies only once, “Man died” makes more sense than “Man dies.” I lost that round.

The present tense in headlines has always been a policy, probably to give articles a sense of immediacy, of urgency. And the term “dateline” now refers to a location, not a time (or a pickup line in a bar). In the olden days, when it took weeks for news and newspapers to travel over long distances, articles contained a real date. Today, with much news reported instantaneously, or no earlier than yesterday, we don’t use the date in the dateline but still call it so.

When newspaper space was at a premium and editors tried to squeeze 17 articles in 8-point type on to page one, headlines were indeed elliptical. And because editors are guilty of either “nouning people’s verbs” and “verbing people’s nouns,” we get ambiguity.

A headline in last week’s Journal North dealt with a story in which a young man, killed in a shootout the night before in Albuquerque, had lost a twin brother in the war in Iraq. It was a touching, sensitive article about twins dying, but the arrangement of the headline was simply: “Man killed lost brother in Iraq.”

Through context, we discover the facts, but as expressed, the headline implies that a man hunted for his lost brother, found him and killed him.

A recent headline, in another newspaper, read, “Man charged with battery.” That prompted a reader, Paul Hibbert, to inquire whether “the man’s current condition is terminal or if the leads the police followed were well grounded.” He asks, further, whether the man was “jailed in a dry cell.”

Some classic newspaper bloopers, now a staple on the Internet, include, “School Bus Passengers Should Be Belted,” “Two Sisters Reunite After 18 Years at Checkout Counter,” and “Police Begin Campaign To Run Down Jaywalkers.”

And one of the saddest headlines imaginable, based on the failure of an agricultural bill to survive the legislative process, read, “Farmer Bill Dies in House.”

And Bill was always such a kind and gentle agrarian.

• • •

“Opt” has become a common alternative for “choose.” Which term is preferable depends on the user and the context. As for me, I would opt for “choose.”

“Optional” and “mandatory” surely ought to appear as must-know words in the vocabulary section of the S.A.T. examination high schoolers take. Given the exposure to the recent “mandatory” baccalaureate services Robertson High School received, in the Optic and area newspapers, we believe everyone now knows what each term means — and what the differences are.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.