Some years ago when I was teaching English as a foreign language, the need arose for students to get a grip on newspaper headlines: it became obvious that the headline of a story did not make the story's content obvious to them in a way that it would to a native speaker. One of the main reasons for this was the shorthand that native speakers absorb about headlinese, in which auxiliary verbs are eliminated from sentences, leaving only part of the verb phrase. So headlines like these,

  1. Florida shooter George Zimmermann headed back to jail
  2. Five bodies found burned in Arizona desert
  3. Samsung Galaxy S III Smartphone Heading to 5 US Carriers

for a native speaker may translate to

  1. Florida shooter George Zimmermann is headed back to jail
  2. Five bodies were found burned in the Arizona desert
  3. Samsung Galaxy S III Smartphone is Heading to 5 US Carriers

But for an English learner, all three headlines are problematic. Headline 1 reads like a regular declarative sentence with an active, finite verb. Headline 2 gives confusion as to what the verb is since two forms that could be verbs, 'found burned,' appear consecutively. Headline 3 may seems to be lacking a verb, since only an -ing form is present, and it might give the impression that “Samsung Galaxy S III Smartphone Heading” is a single, rather scary noun phrase with heading as the noun, preceded by several nouns used attributively.

If we had been teaching English to foreigners in a different era this problem would not have arisen because verb elimination in headlines developed gradually starting in the 19th century, when headlines became more dynamic with subjects and predicates. Before this, a typical newspaper headline was often a short and not very descriptive noun phrase. It's an example of how language changes incrementally over time in ways that are not obvious to one or two generations of speakers, but become obvious over a span of decades or centuries. In this particular case, the change is aided by the versatility of participles in English: their chief line of work is on the business end of verb phrases, but in addition, they often work well as adjectives and nouns, and so native speakers do not find it difficult to attribute them correctly in the absence of gluey auxiliary verbs.

Just as language usage changes, the ways that we interpret what it is doing also change. New theories and approaches emerge that explain grammar and syntax, and the language reference books that describe these features of language also change. If you think of language on a timeline, morphing through thousands of permutations and gathering new vocabulary and usages as it is passed from one generation to the next, language reference books — dictionaries, grammars, and lesson books — are snapshots of the beast at various points as it goes forward. And the focus of these reference works is usually pointed slightly towards the past.

A word that illustrates this phenomenon interestingly is the participle considering. Contemporary English dictionaries call it a preposition. Why? Because it behaves like a preposition: it accepts as an object a noun phrase or a pronoun in the objective case. But it isn't always a preposition when it heads a phrase; sometimes it's still a participle. Look at these two sentences:

a. Considering the time, Freud's ideas were very advanced.
b. Considering the time, I left immediately so that I wouldn't be late.

Most linguists would label considering a preposition in the first sentence because it has a different (and implied) subject than the main clause of the sentence has. But in the second sentence, the subject of considering is “I”, also the subject of the main clause, so considering the time in sentence b. is a participial and not a prepositional phrase.

The 'prepositional' usage of considering is old in English — more than 600 years old — but until the mid-20th century, dictionaries did not label considering a preposition, probably because traditional ideas about grammar preventedthem from placing a word form that is obviously a participle into a small word class that contains mainly short function words: to, for, about, with, and the like. Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary doesn't even lemmatize considering, even though he has many citations in which the word is used in a preposition-like way. But in Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary, it's clear that the great lexicographer was thinking about the problem of considering because he has a lengthy entry about it. (His abbreviation 'ppr' means 'present participle.')

CONSIDERING, ppr. Fixing the mind on; meditating on; pondering; viewing with care and attention; deliberating on.

Note. We have a peculiar use of this word, which may be a corruption for considered, or which may be a deviation from analogy by an insensible change in the structure of the phrase. It is not possible for us to act otherwise, considering the weakness of our nature. As a participle, this word must here refer to us, or the sentence cannot be resolved by any rule of English syntax. It should be correct to say, It is not possible for us to act otherwise, the weakness of our nature being considered; or We, considering the weakness of our nature, cannot act otherwise. But the latter phrase is better grammar, than it is sense. We use other participles in like manner; as, Allowing for tare, the weight could not be more than a hundred pounds. These and similar phrases are anomalous. But considering is no more a kind of conjunction, in such phrases, than it is a noun.

The OED doesn't go so far as to say that considering is a preposition; it merely notes that it is construed as one, and has this to say about it:

The participle would be expected originally to be in concord with the subject of a sentence, as in 'considering his youth, we were surprised at his attainments'; but clear examples of this are not numerous, and as the construction with the past participle considered was probably earlier, it is possible that this arose from it by simple substitution of the active for the passive, without reference to any particular subject.

Thorny matters like this often come to a head in the classroom, whether it is an English literature, composition, or grammar class, for native speakers or for English learners. Any teacher who has been there knows that students often clamor for grammar — they want to know the rule, the magic formula that they imagine will enable them to generate all the correct sentences and recognize the wrong ones. So it's hard to convey that language authorities really just make up the rules as language moves along. New usages develop; at some point, some of them become widespread enough that it is a losing battle to declare them incorrect; and sooner or later it becomes sensible to tweak or reformulate a rule accounting for the change in a way that doesn't throw out everything that was decided before.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 2nd 2012, 9:21 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
A very persuasive addition for grammar teaching.
As I am still learning rules to write and to speak correct English sentences, these types of additions are very helpful for me. Of course I am not native and for the last seven years I've spent everyday a good chunk of my time to practice writing and speaking correct English sentences. I didn't achieve yet.I wish to be a student in Mr. Orin's interactive ESL class.
Monday July 2nd 2012, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Joseph M. G.
I think “Grammatical Mission Creep” is a valid concern; however, I believe Mr. Hargraves selected poor examples to make his argument. His selections are headlines and headlines are not known for their completeness or, for that matter, their accuracy.

In sentence 1, “head” is clearly the verb. It should be in the present tense, not the past, but is otherwise correct. (“Head” means to point or proceed in a certain direction. The headline should have been: “Florida shooter George Zimmerman heads back to jail.”) There’s no reason to complicate the verb by making it progressive, i.e., by adding a form of the verb “to be.” The idea is to simplify, not complicate.

In sentence 2, “found” is clearly used as a copulative or linking verb connecting the subject, “Five bodies,” and the predicate adjective, “burned,” which is a participle. No intelligent, educated, experienced native speaker of English would ever, ever wonder about that. If it confuses a non-native speaker, it can be a learning moment. Also, the rephrasing “were found burned in the Arizona desert” strongly implies that the five bodies could not have been burned elsewhere and dumped in the Arizona desert and that’s clearly different from the message of the original headline.

In sentence 3, “head” is again clearly the verb, but, because the subject is an electronic smart cell-phone system, i.e., an android system, not an individual, metonymy complicates the headline. Nonetheless, the headline should have been “Samsung Galaxy S III Smartphone Heads to 5 US Carriers.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that “grammatical mission creep” exists and threatens English like a slow, lethal cancer. Headlines aren’t effective examples of their threat because they are supposed to be brief and are, perforce, ambiguous—much like a good crossword definition.
Monday July 2nd 2012, 2:22 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
>"So it's hard to convey that language authorities really just make up the rules as language moves along."

This is true, but can be somewhat misinterpreted, I think. That is, it's as true as it would be to say that physicists make up the laws of physics to the extent that the "laws of physics" are a model that we invent to describe what we observe in the universe. And periodically (cue Thomas Kuhn) we make up entirely new models, or stated another way, we make up new laws of physics.

Similarly, language rolls along doing its thing, and we make up models for how its machinery is operating. The language changes, of course, but your statement is really about how we change our minds -- our models, our laws -- for how the gears are turning.

This is a valid point, but as I say, it can be misinterpreted to mean that the rules are arbitrary or capricious. They're certainly not that; it's just that as we learn more (or think we do, haha), we refine our model (make up new rules) to better describe, we hope, what's going on.

Anyway, fascinating piece, as always.

On an only slightly related note, headlineese is by no means always clear to native speakers, and as you know, the neologistically fecund cast of the Language Log has coined the term "crash blossom" to describe headlines that particularly lend themselves to interesting misinterpretations. []
Monday July 2nd 2012, 2:44 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Mike: "Crash blossoms" wasn't a Language Log coinage, actually. I may have helped to popularize it with a Language Log post in Aug. '09, but the term actually was born in the Testy Copy Editors forum. (I also wrote about crash blossoms in a Jan. 2010 On Language column and a Word Routes followup.)
Monday July 2nd 2012, 2:48 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Oops, my mistake. After "snowclone," "recency illusion," and "eggcorn" (also "Cupertino"?), I've now come to think that all such coinages come from you, Liberman, Pullum, and Zwicky. :-)
Monday July 2nd 2012, 6:31 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all comments. Mike, I particularly like your point about language models. I think they tend to be very conservative over all, perhaps because it's impossible for us to take a completely fresh look at language. But because of this, we always carry lots of ancient baggage with us when we set about analyzing language.

I was mindful of crash blossoms and mentioned them in an early draft of this piece, but eventually drifted in another direction that made it seem not necessary to mention. I'm a huge fan of them, however.
Monday July 2nd 2012, 8:37 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
To Joseph M.G.
As non-native speaker I have most subjective desire which I am rendering unto you in subjunctive mode: I would wish for such learning moment as that to which you refer. But most unfortunately I am forbidden to read matter which contains words such as “copulative”. Think you may that this matter matters not, but most verily it hath verity.
Please to be watching the language.
Tuesday July 3rd 2012, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
@Joseph M.G.: Your parody of a rigid, pedantic prescriptivist is spot-on! I can think of a good headline: "English Heads Down Toilet."

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