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.

A Lesson in Propaganda

You might have read an article in the New York Times recently, reporting both a decline in ebook sales and a resurgence of consumer interest in print books.  The article, written by Alexandra Alter, bases its conclusions primarily on data presented by the American Association of Publishers:

Now, there are signs that some e-book adopters are returning to print, or becoming hybrid readers, who juggle devices and paper. E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.

E-books’ declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television.

Alter then goes on to note that “e-book subscription services [like Kindle Unlimited]…have struggled to convert book lovers into digital binge readers,” and that “sales of dedicated e-reading devices have plunged as consumers migrated to tablets and smartphones.”

Without citing sources for these statements, she then uses them to support the argument that “the surprising resilience of print has provided a lift to many [traditional] booksellers,” and goes on to discuss the ways in which major publishing corporations such as Hachette and Penguin Random House have invested in expanding their print operations.

The founding assumptions of this article seem so specious that they call into question whether it ought to have been printed at all.

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