In today’s New York Times, my eye was caught by the following headline:
It caught my eye because I couldn’t figure out what they meant by it. There were multiple options, none of them certain. It wasn’t until I read the third and fourth paragraphs that I got the gist:
These contracts, known as credit-default swaps, effectively let banks and hedge funds wager on the financial equivalent of a four-alarm fire: a default by a company or, in the case of Greece, an entire country. If Greece reneges on its debts, traders who own these swaps stand to profit.
“It’s like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house — you create an incentive to burn down the house,” said Philip Gisdakis, head of credit strategy at UniCredit in Munich.
The short of it is that the banks helped to hide the debts, and now they’re betting Greece will default on them.
There are a few problems with the headline the way they have it:
- First, “bet” is temporally ambiguous – I wasn’t sure if they were talking past or present.
- Second, “defaults” could be a plural noun or a present-tense verb.
- Third, the present tense is confusing for “defaults” here because it’s referring to the future – something we do in English, use present for the future (since we have no inflecting future tense, just an auxiliary-based one with “will”), but it might be better to be clearer by saying “will default”.
- Add to this the increasingly common practice of using attributive nouns rather than adjectives, which allows “Greece defaults” to be read as “Greek defaults” or “defaults of/by/from Greece”, and the standard dropping of the relative “that”, and you have something really a bit unclear.
Now, of course, “Banks Bet that Greece Will Default on Debt They Helped Hide” is noticeably longer, which is a problem in newspaper headlines, especially since the NYT still has a print edition with actual column inches to fit within. Likewise “Banks Helped Greece Hide Debt, Now Bet It Will Default”. “Banks Set Greece Up to Fail” might seem harder to defend as a statement, but is probably a better headline all around. (The ambiguity of “set” is OK here because it happened in the past and is still happening in the present.)
But, then, is it really a bad headline? It did get me to read the article, just as the most egregious website I’ve ever seen – yvettesbridalformal.com — has gotten me (and my friends) showing it to everyone, making for excellent advertising.
Incidentally, the title on the web page of the news article (not the headline but the title you see at the top of your browser) is “Trades in Greek Debt Add to Country’s Financing Burden” – clearer but, yes, less catching.