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Shooting Dead People

5th January 2013

If you shoot someone and kill them. you are said to shoot them dead.

But this can cause all sorts of grammar difficulties: "Police shoot dead homeless man". Does that mean the police shot a homeless man and killed him? Or does it mean that a homelsss man was dead and then the police (for some reason) shot him?

Luckily the marvellous Language Blog helps us through these mysteries:

Shooting dead people is an old story — Geoff Pullum explained the syntax of such headlines in "Why shoot the dead ones?", 10/17/2010:

… this is what linguists call a "Heavy NP Shift" construction: when a direct object is long, complex, or in some way heavy with pragmatic import, it is permissible to place it last in the clause, after everything else in the verb phrase. For example:

     The report stripped [ ] bare of its wrapping of euphemism the sordid reality of what this disgusting man had actually been doing.

The empty brackets show where the direct object could have gone, and would obligatorily have gone if it were short:

     The report stripped his story bare of its wrapping of euphemism.

That's a much better style choice than the very dubious alternative:

      The report stripped bare of its wrapping of euphemism his story.

Read the whole thing, and be impressed by their diligent use of many different newspaper headlines to explain the problem.

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