Whites searched 'for race balance'. Did they find it?

My first thought on seeing Metro's main front page headline today was: 'So did they find it?'

Metro headline: Whites searched for race balance

As it turns out, 'whites' is the object, not the subject, of the headline (which is written in the passive voice).

(UPDATE 19/07/09: As Garik points out in the comments following this post, 'whites' is actually the subject of this passive sentence.)

The first paragraph of the story clarifies the matter:
Police are searching white people under terror laws simply to provide 'racial balance' to statistics, it was revealed yesterday.


Last year I blogged about police stopping and searching commuters and schoolgirls at my local station...

11 comments:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Ooo, just covered this in class! Past participle = passive ... too bad it looks like the past tense for regular verbs.

Mantolwen said...

Sadly this isn't in the Scottish Metro. However, we did get the following:
"Blaze pupils cancel exams"

So, what do you think it's about? Arson? Nope. A fire at a packaging site caused schools to be closed. Should probably read: "Blaze cancels pupils' exams"

garik said...

I hate to be pedantic, but "whites" are the subject not the object.

This is where the distinction between syntactic arguments and semantic arguments becomes important. For example, in Brutus killed Caesar, Brutus is the agent (semantic) and the subject (syntactic), and Caesar is the theme (semantic) and the object (syntactic).

In a passive sentence, like "Caesar was killed (by Brutus)", however, this is reversed. The semantic theme is the syntactic subject. "Brutus", if mentioned, remains the agent, but is expressed as a prepositional object.

"Whites searched" is a headline abbreviation for "whites are searched" or "whites are being searched" (by police). The active equivalent would be something like "Police are searching whites". In both cases, the police are the agent and whites are the theme. The difference is that in the passive sentence, whites are the subject, not the object, as they are in the active sentence.

garik said...

It's also not quite true, as the Ridger suggests, that past participle = passive. It depends on the auxiliary verb.

In English we use past participles both for passives (whites got searched, Caesar was killed) and for perfect aspect (I've searched the whole lake, Brutus had killed Caesar when I arrived). And sometimes we get both in the same sentence (Caesar will have been killed before the end of March).

JD (The Engine Room) said...

Thanks, Garik – and there's no need to apologise for "being pedantic"!

You're right, of course. As Fowler says: "The object of the active verb becomes the subject of the passive verb and the subject [of the active verb] is expressed as an agent introduced by the preposition 'by'."

I still think it's a lousy headline, though.

The Ridger, FCD said...

You are completely correct about "whites" being the subject in a normal English sentence, but this isn't a sentence. It's a headline, and they use differents rules. In "headlinese", "whites searched" = "whites are searched". It's a different syntax, originating in an attempt to save space.

In a headline, the reading JD got would normally have been expressed as "whites search", as "present = past", the way "whites to search" would be the future tense.

Compare "President to travel to Iran" or "Man, 43, arrested in scandal".

The Ridger, FCD said...

ps - the unit in my class was on just this problem: headlines that cause ambiguity because of (a) the different syntactic structure or (b) faulty word choices, as in "GIs deployed in Iraq desert with lots of American stuff", a NYTimes hed about GIs in the Iraqi desert who have a lot of stuff (like iPods), NOT, as most people interpret it, GIs deserting from Iraq and taking stuff with them when the go.

garik said...

You are completely correct about "whites" being the subject in a normal English sentence, but this isn't a sentence. It's a headline, and they use differents rules. In "headlinese", "whites searched" = "whites are searched". It's a different syntax, originating in an attempt to save space.

You're quite right that this isn't normal English, and I see your point about how in headlines, present normally stands for past, and past participles almost do always mean passive. I misunderstood you! I thought you meant in general.

But that doesn't have any bearing on whether "whites" is the subject or not. If you assume (as we both do) that "whites searched" = "whites are searched" then "whites" is very clearly the subject, not the object.

On headlinese: interestingly, you do see headlines from time to time where an apparent past simple form is just that, and not a passive. And it always looks odd to me. I have a feeling that it's more common in smaller local newspapers, but I have no data to back this up. If I'm right though, it's rather surprising that the grammar of small local papers should differ like this from larger papers, since you'd imagine the influence of the latter on the former to be quite significant.

The Ridger, FCD said...

You're right, Garik.

Martin (riverScrap.com) said...

I raised my haggard early-morning eyebrows at this one too, but for a different reason. The opening paragraph begins: "Police are searching white people..."; and then the second continues: "They are targeting people they have no real reason to suspect...".

I took that juxtaposition as a clear implication that being white obsolves you of any suspicion of being terrorist. Which is a pretty sloppy message to convey in a lead story (not to mention a totally innacurate one: Chechens, converts, non-Muslim terrorists etc).

Perhaps I'm being too touchy there? I get what he was trying to say, but I didn't like the implied equivalence.

Martin (riverScrap.com) said...

"innacurate"... damnit, every time