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Word position and meaning of a sentence

Friday December 6 2019

Local newspapers on the streets in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE

Newspapers on sale on a street in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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A Nation headline alleged: ‘Uganda’s 32 Media Houses Closed’. This makes perfect sense. For the layman, the only problem may be that the finite verb “are” is missing between the noun “houses” and participle “closed”. But I have no quarrel with that. Newspapers habitually leave such verbs out because they tend to slow down headlines.


As anybody can see, ‘Uganda’s 32 media houses closed’ is much faster than ‘Uganda’s 32 media houses are closed’. The technical term for such an omission is elision. We say that the verb “are” has been elided.

As long as it does not interfere with your intended meaning, an elision of this kind removes weight from the sentence and increases its speed and, therefore, its impact.

The trouble with the headline is not that it is meaningless, but that it means something which the headline writer did not intend. It shows what can happen to a sentence if you put a word in the wrong place. It is a syntactical problem.

Syntax is the branch of linguistics that deals with the correct arrangement of words in a sentence. It is extremely important for words to take their proper places because, if they do not, the writer or speaker will convey the wrong message.



Diplomats engaged in delicate international negotiations will readily appreciate what I am saying. Many costly wars have been occasioned by roundtable misunderstandings due to syntactical mistakes. That is why it is essential for a state like Kenya – which uses a non-mother tongue as its official national as well as international communication tool – to ensure that all its envoys and delegates to important international conferences are masters of the nuances of English.

In the headline, ‘Uganda’s 32 Media Houses Closed’, because the figure is in the wrong place, the writer conveys the meaning that 32 is Uganda’s total number of media houses and that all of them have been shut. But, clearly, that was not what the story said beneath.


According to the story, 32 (out of a larger number) of Uganda’s media houses had been closed. In that case, the figure, acting as an adjective, should have preceded the word “Uganda”.

The headline should have read, ‘32 Ugandan Media Houses Closed.’

A headline in the Standard on the same day presented a related problem. It said: ‘Fire Hits City’s Supermarket’. The apostrophe “s” means that Nairobi has (owns) only one supermarket and that, since fire has swallowed it, the city now has none.

To avoid the error, you do not even need to move the word “city” from its place in that sentence. You simply drop the apostrophe “s”, thus: ‘Fire hits city supermarket’. In that way, you transform the noun city into an adjective. “City" now functions exactly like “modern”, “popular” or “well-stocked”.


“City” now describes one of many things in the same category. In ‘Fire hits Karen’s supermarket’, you mean that Karen has only one supermarket. But in ‘Fire hits Karen supermarket’, you imply that Karen has others.

Philip Ochieng is a veteran journalist.