New York Times: ‘Police Stab Man To Death With Knife!!!’

Not really.  But sort of.

Yesterday the New York Times published a short article about a shooting in Indianapolis.  The online version originally bore the headline “Police Kill Armed Man With Knife in Indianapolis.”  After a flurry of comments alerting them to the obvious ambiguity of this title, the newspaper replaced the headline with the clearer, if clunkier, “Indianapolis Police Kill Man Who Had Knife.”

The actual facts of the situation involved a knife-wielding man who lunged at a police officer after the officer tried to subdue him using nonlethal force.  (Yeesh, that sentence was a mouthful too, wasn’t it?)

This is a teachable moment if there ever was one.  A Strunk & White moment, if you will.  The original headline, as the Times eventually realized, made it sound as if the Indianapolis police had stabbed a man to death with a knife, which was almost the opposite of what really happened.

It’s not that the sentence was technically grammatically incorrect: one could, if one were so inclined, read the prepositional phrase “with knife” as modifying the words “armed man” as opposed to the word “police.”  Which is a funny way of saying that it’s possible, if not plausible, to read that sentence as meaning what the Times intended it to mean: that the police killed a man who was armed with a knife.

We can probably ascribe the editors’ failure to use “Police Kill Man Armed With Knife” to overexposure to the sometimes over-simplistic sentence structure used in newspaper headlines.  One need only read one of those articles explaining a complex scientific concept using only common words to realize that, sometimes, dumbing down your language only makes an idea more obtuse.

That said, it’s a perfect example of why language matters, and why writers must write clearly.

If nothing else, it’s comforting to know that even the New York Times occasionally makes mistakes.

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