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Today’s post is a bit out of the site’s wheelhouse, but if there’s any day to deviate from your schtick, it’s Christmas. John McIntyre has been tracking some of the hackneyed Christmas constructions that show up in newspaper headlines, like tis the season or allusions to Dickens. I’d been thinking that he was being perhaps a bit too harsh, when what to wondering eyes should appear but this mind-boggling headline:

Yes, Virginia, there is no Newt (on the ballot)‎

Apologies, Mr. McIntyre.  I couldn’t agree with you more. This headline is terrible.

And yet, like the movies on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, there’s a certain beauty in it.  Whereas most Yes Virginias spawn from a lack of creativity, in this one the writer was instead too creative. Not many could have managed to make such an abomination, such a square-peg-round-hole sort of a sentence; this takes a real sense of purpose, a desire to keep going when all those around you say it can’t be done. This is the headline of a man on a mission, someone who said “Virginia and Christmas, there’s a joke in there” and wouldn’t give up without finding one.

It is, in some ways a minor work of art.  The whiplash-inducing swap from positive to negative polarity is redolent of the 1922 song Yes! We Have No Bananas. The parenthetical phrase at the end suggests that the allusion so obscures what the article is talking about that the true topic must be specifically pointed out to the reader. Add it all up, and I’ve got my choice for the worst “Yes, Virginia” headline of 2011.

By comparison to the winner, the honorable mentions may seem like the “Yes, Virginia” headlines of “Yes, Virginia” headlines: insipid little sentences borne from eh-good-enough thinking.  But I think there are some gems in there, especially as the connections to the original newspaper column and jolly fat man stretch toward the breaking point.

The at-least-it’s-a-person continuations:

  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Tim Tebow
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Garry Marshall‎
  • Mitt was Right! or, Yes, Virginia, There is Corporate Personhood

The at-least-it’s-Christmas continuations:

  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Christ in Christmas‎
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Rancho Hallmark store
  • Yes, Virginia, There Is a Pooping Log, and Other World Christmas Traditions

And then the wheels fall off:

  • Yes, Virginia, There Is Pepper Spray
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Science of Generosity Award
  • Yes, Virginia, There Is An Indemnity Clause‎
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a moustache-shaped baking mold
  • Yes, Virginia, there really is a squirrel season
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Democrat-media complex
  • Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as great 3D!
  • Yes, Virginia, there is ‘climate change’ the earth is cooling off!
  • Yes, Virginia, There Is a Redneck World Magazine‎
  • Yes, Virginia, there is renewable energy in Israel

Found a worse one? Add it in the comments! Merry Happy, all!

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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