quotation marks

Mark A Mandel mam at THEWORLD.COM
Fri May 10 02:26:48 UTC 2002

The MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, April 29, 2002, ran this headline on
the top of page 1:

        Man killed in 'smoking' fire

My first reaction to this headline was "Why quotes?" As soon as I
mentally stripped them off, I saw why. Modifying "fire" as it does,
"smoking" would be read as a participle -- 'a fire that smokes' --
rather than a gerundive -- 'a fire due to [the act of] smoking'.

In speech the difference in intonation is unmistakable, but in writing
there is no established way to distinguish these homographic phrases.
Compared to the participial use of the "-ing" form, the gerundive is
infrequent enough that the problem rarely arises, and I suppose the
usual solution is to recast the phrase: not an easy option in a

Kudos to the headline writer for finding this novel solution.

-- Mark A. Mandel
   Linguist at Large

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