Party time

Posted by on December 19, 2011

Newspaper headlines have the task of trying to convey the essence of a story in a very short space. To achieve this, they often compress the syntax, leaving out articles or other grammatical glue. With the absence of such glue, ambiguities can arise, as it’s not always easy to spot the part of speech of some of the words involved. A recent headline in my local paper read:

Bright sparks weather gala night power cut to party on

The problem here is that of the eight lexical words involved, five can be either a noun or a verb, and if you make one wrong assumption, you end up failing completely to understand what is meant.

Sparks, for example, could be the third person singular present tense of the verb spark, meaning to set off or initiate. That would require the word bright to be a noun, as this would be the subject of the verb, but bright doesn’t really have any noun uses in English. In fact, what we’re seeing here is a compound noun, bright sparks, meaning clever or lively people.

Weather can be either noun and verb, and this is the crucial word in this headline. Here, it’s a verb, meaning to endure or survive, and the meaning of the headline starts to become clear. The bright sparks survive a gala night power cut to party on. We still need to disentangle gala night power cut, and both power and cut are potentially nouns or verbs. Here, they’re both nouns, and we’re talking about a power cut that happens in the course of a night when a gala is being held. So the bright sparks survive a loss of electricity during their gala night… to party on. Party is yet another ambiguous word as far as its part of speech is concerned, and here it’s not just a verb, but a phrasal verb, formed by the addition of the particle on to add the extra meaning of continuation (see Michael Rundell’s recent post  in which he touches on the way in which particles can be used to form phrasal verbs with a predictable meaning).

So the meaning finally reveals itself as People attending a gala night survived a loss of electricity and continued to enjoy the party.

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