Sunday, August 4, 2013

Garden path to nowhere

Today, a Boston Globe headline on a story about an antiques auction truly mystified me. It wasn't your garden-variety garden path sentence, requiring only the the shake of a head to rejigger the interpretation -- it was a puzzle that took several paragraphs to solve. The hed:

Imperfect appeal to the impecunious

My reading was that some dealers (of the secretary, ladderback chair, clock, or portrait that were shown in photos) were insufficiently sensitive to the financial constraints of potential buyers.  That is, their appeal to the impecunious [customers] was imperfect. 

If you read the story, you learn that what the hed means is, approximately: Imperfect [antiques] appeal to the impecunious [buyer]. (That is, the buyer who will spend $300-$500 for a foot-long wood finial taken from an 18th-century house in Dorchester, or $400-$600 for a painted Bible box.)

It looks as if the hed writer gave in to an obvious temptation. As the text explains, "most of the furniture [in the auction] is pictured in [John T.] Kirk's 'The* Impecunious Collector's Guide to American Antiques' ... and his 'The Impecunious House Restorer: Personal Vision and Historical Accuracy.'" I  don't think this justifies using "impecunious" in a newspaper headline -- almost nothing would -- but if it were "impecunious buyers appreciate the imperfect," at least the reader might understand it.

(I think someone at the paper may agree with me. I couldn't find the headline anywhere in the online newspaper, even in Today's Paper, supposedly a page-by-page replica.)

*My fellow Cranky Old Editors will remember when you dropped the "The" from a title if -- I quote the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. -- "it does not fit the surrounding syntax." Thus, "Hawking's Brief History of Time explains black holes" and "That dreadful Old Curiosity Shop character." Less experienced editors -- the ones who put a hyphen in "a more-perfect union" -- seem wary of leaving anything out, tradition or not. Maybe because you can't be wrong if it's all there, however unnecessary.


John Cowan said...

What troubles me there isn't impecunious but imperfect. I can't see using imperfect by itself for imperfect things; it would have to be the imperfect.

Jan said...

Yes, that's another problem -- "The imperfect appeals to the impecunious" is a clearer way to say it; using the plural verb ("Imperfect appeal to" meaning "Imperfect things")makes it much harder to get the right reading.

Faldone said...

I got the correct meaning very quickly, but then I was primed by the knowledge that it was a garden path sentence. I guess it helps that the correct reading is a complete sentence and the garden path isn't.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I think "Imperfect appeals" is easier to parse, but it has its own problems (someone's making appeals that are imperfect).

Unknown said...

My first thought was to adjust the headline by adding an s to imperfect. X adjective-Y nouns often becomes X adjectives.

Then I thought of adding a few more letters and changing the focus slightly.

Imperfections appeal to (the)impecunious

As to why those words were chosen, I suspect it was just an impetuous impulse.