quotation marks

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Fri May 10 04:05:35 UTC 2002

It's still ambiguous. I read it as "fire that smokes" two or three times
until I understood it. It's a nonstandard use of quotation marks to cover up
sloppy writing. Much better would be to rephrase the headline:

"Smoker killed in fire."
"Man killed in cigarette fire."
"Cigarette starts fatal fire."

No quotation marks needed. The meaning is clear.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society
> [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU]On Behalf
> Of Mark A Mandel
> Sent: Thursday, May 09, 2002 7:27 PM
> Subject: quotation marks
> 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
> headline.
> Kudos to the headline writer for finding this novel solution.
> -- Mark A. Mandel
>    Linguist at Large

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