linguistics and lexicography Love English

Don’t shoot the messenger

© ImageSourceIn a previous post, I tried to show that it is perfectly natural and acceptable to say he shot dead his girlfriend as well as he shot his girlfriend dead, in spite of the fictional Professor Pedanticus’s claim that the use of the first pattern by the BBC is not only very annoying, but has somehow been made compulsory.

The irascible Professor’s creator, Chris Maslanka, commented on my post on April 15. He suggested that shot dead the man had become fixed, or ossified, and ‘had become the ONLY way in which Radio 4 newsfolk could express this idea. We have stopped hearing he shot the man dead.’

I appreciate Chris’s comment, but I don’t think there is much evidence to support this view. And that is what it’s all about: evidence, evidence, evidence. I don’t have Radio 4 transcripts, but the BBC News website offers plenty of evidence for both variants. They occur adjacently in this report (April 9):

Gunman shoots three people dead at Palace of Justice court (headline)
Italian police have arrested a man believed to have shot dead three people at the Palace of Justice in Milan… (first sentence)

In fact the BBC website reveals a pretty even distribution of X shot dead Y and X shot Y dead, and large general corpora, too, provide roughly equal amounts of evidence for both patterns. The two are not in free variation, of course; for example, if the noun group after shoot is a long one, then dead usually comes straight after shoot as in …a US police officer shot dead an unarmed black man (BBC April 10). But there is no evidence for the view that one pattern is dominant.

Incidentally, I should note that the choice of active or passive voice is obviously an important factor in how a clause is ordered. Most reports of shootings (perhaps 50 percent) select the passive X was shot dead to lead with – they start with the victim rather than the killer. For example:

Eight people have been shot dead in greater Sao Paulo. (BBC News, April 19)

In the passive, there is little choice as to the order of these elements – the adjective usually comes directly after the verb. A person is considered dangerous, or has been set free, or was held responsible, for example. So in the passive be shot dead, the words shot and dead are adjacent collocates, and this is their natural order. But there is no evidence for the active form X shoots dead Y becoming a fixed phrase and ousting its rival.

Anyone is free to hate a particular usage, and when you start feeling cross about a bit of language, it seems to crop up all over the place. But this is a personal matter and has little to say about what is right or wrong. The aim of ‘real grammar’ (see here and here, for example) is to describe what is happening, not what used to happen or what you think ought to happen.

While I’m not convinced that the good Professor’s bugbear constitutes ‘an interesting linguistic shift’, as Chris suggests in his comment, I agree that a newspaper column that encourages people to think about language is very useful. And there are times when the Prof chooses a target that rightly deserves a bit of anger. For example, on December 6, his column reads:

…Pedanticus read Jessica Ennis-Hill sent threats over Ched Evans stance. What made the Prof go all a-twitter?

I’d already noticed a very similar headline, and cut the piece out in the time-honoured pre-digital way. It was from the Guardian on the same date:

Ennis-Hill sent rape tweets in footballer row

I was slightly a-twitter at first, too, because the obvious reading was that Ennis-Hill had sent the tweets. But world knowledge stepped in almost at once, and I realised that sent was a contracted passive.

The Prof did not mention that his example was also a headline, which is crucial. In headlines, omitting the verb be from passives is a common space-saving practice. A fuller version such as Ennis-Hill was (or has been) sent rape tweets in footballer row would have taken up four lines in a one-column-width report, and obviously only three were available. Reduced passives usually work well, causing no ambiguity, even with verbs like send that can have two objects:

Delhi Games given ultimatum (= has been given)
Everest avalanche: Tributes paid to victims one year on (= have been paid)

The Prof explains his headline in a rather different way. In abstract terms, he says:

a writer might correctly encode proposition A as S; but (s)he might also check for the reader’s sake that S is not also the encoding for B, particularly if B is very different from A!

Hmm, I’m more at home with a grammatical explanation. Whatever, this particular reduced passive was a bad idea, as would have become clear if the writer had stepped back and read the headline before submitting it. But time runs out, people are rushed, the days are too short… GTGN.

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Gill Francis

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