Twisted English in the News

I noticed this headline in the news today:

Uganda shelves plan to convert rainforest

Now, let's imagine a non-native English speaker comes across this headline but doesn't know that “shelves” is a verb meaning “to suspend indefinitely” and instead thinks that it's the more commonly seen plural of “shelf.” The headline still makes complete syntactic sense, although the part of speech played by every word changes.

What had been the verb becomes the subject, what had been the subject becomes an adjective, and so on...

Intended Perceived
Uganda nounadjective
shelves verbnoun
plan object phraseverb
toinfinitive phrase
convert
rainforest

I might have some of those labels wrong, but the point is that everything was able to change to keep a syntactically valid sentence.

Semantics (the meaning), of course, are another matter entirely. You don't need to be a native speaker to know that it makes little sense to talk about a shelf in Uganda making plans of any sort, so the student of English is forced to wonder what the heck this might mean. Shelves are normally made of wood.... rainforest wood? Is the story about people in Uganda planning to convert rainforest wood into shelving?

Where would one even start to look for their misunderstanding?

When they got around to considering the second word, well, looking up “shelves” merely tells them what they already knew: it's the plural of shelf.

I'm sure much head scratching would ensue, to be relieved only if they miraculously guessed to look up “shelve”.

What a silly language! I'm so thankful that I speak it natively, and so very much respect Fumie and others that have learned it artificially. Japanese is much easier than English, I think (which is why I have no excuse for speaking as poorly as I do).

Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue is full of interesting English like that shown above, enough to make your head spin if you're a native English speaker, and to want to kill yourself if you're a student.

Newspaper headlines are often a source of this kind of humor/horror. When I was a kid, my brother Alan had a clipping on the fridge for the longest time: Councilmen butt heads at meeting.


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