Thursday, May 2, 2013

Who'll take charge?

Until this morning, the only reference to the impending Kentucky Derby I had noticed was John McIntyre's annual guide to the concoction of a mint julep. Then I opened today's Wall Street Journal and promptly misread a headline:

17 Reasons Not to Bet on Will Take Charge

"Not to Bet on," I thought. "Wow, Thoroughbred names just keep getting stranger."

But the piece was not about why a horse called Not to Bet on will take charge in this year's race. It was advice to readers not to bet on the horse called Will Take Charge.  (The "17 reasons" are really one reason: He's the "unlucky" horse starting at post position 17, the only position that has never launched a winner. Well, it's not science, it's horse racing.)

Fellow journalists will have noticed that the headline is an argument in favor of "down" style in headlines, using caps sparingly rather than capitalizing most headline words as the Journal and the NYT do. In a down-style paper like the Boston Globe, the headline would have read

17 reasons not to bet on Will Take Charge

And voila -- the story may still be fanciful, but the headline ambiguity has evaporated.


tudza said...

17 reasons Will Take Charge is a bad bet

17 reasons Will Take Charge is a nag

Bryan White said...

I was throw by the grammar for a second (not from a train, thankfully ;D), but as soon as I figured it out that part of it was actually a name, I somehow knew right away that "Will Take Charge" was the horse's name.

I think it came to me in a dream.

Gregory Lee said...

I had a hard time interpreting it your way. I think the "garden path" principle that you interpret a sentence reading the words left to right as long as it makes sense to do so will lead you to the intended interpretation.

I might have made up the term '"garden path" sentence', but I'm thinking of the famous example "The horse raced past the barn fell", which is hard to parse, because going from left to right gives you "raced" as the main verb, until you get to "fell", when you realize you've been led down a garden path, and "raced" must really be a passive participle from a reduced relative clause "(which was) raced past the barn".

Anonymous said...

Having always worked at downstyle publications, I've never really been clear what the benefits of upstyle are supposed to be.

John Roth said...

I would think that, if "Not To Bet On" was a horse's name, that all four words would be capitalized.

John Cowan said...

In Cormac McCarthy's irredeemable All The Pretty Horses, there is a horse named "who's will", always lowercased. The result is stuff like this:

“While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.”


Jan said...

John Roth, you're right about the cap On, but I didn't notice that right away. John Cowan, I second that "Feh." See (if you like)

richardelguru said...

Naming your racehorse "Not to Bet on" is brilliant! It's sure ensure that most punters won't bet on it, so you'll get much better odds!

robert said...

My favorite pair of garden-path sentences (constructed for comedic purposes) are:

Racehorse Names Are Getting Longer And Stranger Wins Kentucky Derby.

Closest Race In Derby History A Distant Second.

Martyn Cornell said...

This reminds me of one of my favourite pub names, the (sadly long closed) Why Not Beat Dragon in Mile End, London, which is indecipherable unless you know that Why Not and Dragon were two racehorses in the 17th century, and Why Not did indeed beat Dragon when they raced each other.