Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


Am I the only one who is briefly bemused when a Guardian homepage headline refers to obesity “leaping” in the developing world, or when the headline on the article tells us

Obesity soars to ‘alarming’ levels in developing countries

I understand the need for colourful imagery in headlines, but it shouldn’t clash. Thinking about obesity leaping and soaring makes my head hurt. We might imagine a headline about a “Healthy increase in measles cases”, or “New NHS rules allow GPs to make a killing”.

The striving after punchy language sometimes makes for weird effects when combined with the English language’s exceptional parts-of-speech ambiguity, as in this BBC headline from the time of the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico:

BP caps shattered oil leak wellhead

At first I thought BP had put some caps on, which proved counterproductive because they shattered the wellhead. I forgot that headline writers like to put everything in the present tense (sounds more exciting that way, I guess), so what I thought was a noun (caps) was actually the verb, describing a success, and what looked like a past-tense verb describing the failed effort was actually a participle, referring to the state of affairs that started the whole story.

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