“Boy, 4, accidentally shot self; suspect surrenders”
WHAT THE HUH?!? The headline above is from today’s Seattle Times (July 23, 2013). It appears in the upper right corner in a banner across the top of the front page. This terse line (six words and a number) tells us—what? That a boy shot and killed himself and then turned himself over to the police”
Let’s try again: The first five words tell us that a 4-year old boy shot himself, but accidentally.
Okay. I got that.
The last two words tells us that the suspect in the shooting has surrendered himself. What? As the wound was self-inflicted, the 4-year old boy is the only possible suspect.
Based solely an these seven words, I assume that, since the suspect—who is the victim, the boy—surrendered, then the wound could not have been fatal.
Again, okay. I got that.
So, then we turn to page B1 and the headline—and this time it is the second section’s main headline—now says in HUGE type:
“Suspect surrenders; boy accidentally shot himself.”
This is a reiteration of the front page with the order of the two phrases (sic) turned around.
Um, just how did he surrender?
So what does the actual story tell us? Well, the boy did, in fact, shoot himself in the head with a handgun. But he is, in fact, dead. (Head wounds tend in that direction.) So, then, how did he surrender? Well, when the police arrived, they determined that the wound was self-inflicted.
After a “cursory examination” by the Coroner’s office, the wound was deemed a possible homicide. Hence, now we have a victim and a suspect, the latter being a 25-year old man, recently released after a felony drug conviction, apparently the owner of the gun.
His relationship to the boy is not explained.
To his credit, the felon did surrender “peacefully” while the police were under the revised impression that it had been a possible homicide. As a felon, he was barred from owning a gun, so charges against him may be filed. Needless to say, that will do nothing for the boy and his family.
(Nor is it likely to cost the editor responsible for the grammatically incorrect—indeed, the almost baffling—headline to lose anything more than perhaps a wee bit of pride when he is teased about it by fellow newspapermen.)
How could this grammatical boehner (I mean, “boner”) have been avoided? Easily—just drop “self” from the line and it reads accurately (for the story):
“Boy, 4, accidentally shot; suspect surrenders.”
Even better—and more accurate—would have been, “Boy, 4, shot and killed; suspect surrenders.” Of course, had the headline been written correctly, I would not have anything to post into my “Strunkandwhiten It” category today . . .
William Strunk Jr’s original edition of The Elements Of Style (1919) was all of fifty-three pages long. In 1959, it was revised and expanded by one of his students, the famous children’s book author E.B. White. It is one of the best selling and most influential grammar and punctuation books ever published. I have used the authors’ names for one of the categories of this site: Strunkandwhiten It! For more information, refer to “On William Strunk and Elements of Style.”