Lines of Investigation

A headline recently at CNN to promote a new podcast read, the most famous crime you may have never heard of. This innocent little statement gives us the chance to review a number of points that bear on both grammar and style.

We should begin by noting that what we’re looking at is a fragment, only a piece of the headline that we want to examine closely for a few minutes, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the statement doesn’t express a complete thought. That said, how do these ten words work together? The noun crime seems to be the center of gravity: the three words before it directly modify it as adjectives, and the six words after it refer again to it as a clause. There’s not much to say about the opening adjective phrase (the most famous), but the clause (you may have never heard of) is where things can be found.

First, the grammar. Why would we say (as I just did) that the words you may have never heard of refer to the noun crime as a clause? These words together constitute a clause because they combine a subject (you) with a verb (heard of), and that clause in its entirety works as an adjective because it is defining the most famous crime—it’s the one which you may have never heard of. (Look a bit more closely and you’ll realize that the word which, a relative pronoun with crime as its antecedent, is omitted from the original statement, a legitimate omission, but one that can make the grammatical analysis trickier. And trickier still is the fact that most here really means very, not greatest, and so the restrictive relative pronoun which is the right choice. That’s a mouthful, but the curious twist of the headline depends upon this complex structure.) And we have to identify the verb as heard of, not simply heard, because heard of is a phrasal verb, a verb combined with an adverb or preposition to extend the meaning of the original verb ever so slightly.

That phrasal verb is used here in a longish verb phrase (may have never heard of), and we should know what’s going on there both grammatically and stylistically. Verb phrases are made up of a principal verb (heard of) and at least one auxiliary verb; here we have two (may and have), and each has a specific charge to fulfill: the auxiliary have serves to build the present perfect tense and the auxiliary may sets that tense in the subjunctive mood. Omitting the adverb never for a moment, we have then a verb phrase, may have heard of, in the present perfect subjunctive, whose subject is you. The subjunctive mood is necessary because the writer does not know whether you’ve actually heard of the crime or not; it’s possible, not factual, that you’re in the dark about it, so the indicative mood would be, well, illegal.

But what about the adverb never? Adverbs in a verb phrase have a decision to make: where to take their stand. The headline writer has placed the adverb after the second auxiliary verb, and that is what accounts for the easy and casual tone of the statement, a position appropriate, arguably, for the popular subject at hand. But it is instructive to note that the standard compositional rule in English is to place the adverb after the first auxiliary verb in a verb phrase, and if you listen closely, you’ll heard the slightly more formal tone: the most famous crime you may never have heard of. Sometimes we have a choice in the matter, as here, but sometimes we don’t: you’ll be on your own in the dock if you violate the rule and write I may have not heard of that crime.

It can be helpful to remember that matters of grammar and style together take our readers to a certain idea down a certain path. That can often depend on the slightest detail, and that’s why a close investigation of the most casual lines can sometimes uncover the unexpected and useful.


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