Let's fix a bothersome NYT headline, shall we?

So, here’s the original headline, from the Sports section of Monday’s dead tree edition:

Notice the problem? “Their Skid” could mean “the Clippers’ Skid,” because the Clippers are the subject. (BTW, “skid” means “losing streak,” for those of you not up on your sportspeak.) But that can’t be right, because a team that “overpowers” another team can’t be on a skid.

So the headline isn’t as clear as it could and should be. But maybe that was due to space limitations? Hmm, don’t think so. 

According to this article on Grammar Girl, this is NOT a misplaced modifier. The headline writer was correct in putting the modifying phrase (“as their skid reaches 4 games”) right after the noun it refers to (“Knicks”).

Ah ha! But she left off the comma. So let’s see how adding it works: 

OK, I think this is technically correct, but worse for clarity. Sue me—I want the word “their” to refer to the subject. 

Maybe the word “their” is actually a problem. Watch:

Adding the comma and removing “their” makes this perfectly clear, I think. The Clippers won. There is a skid. There’s no “their” to make us wonder who “their” refers to (even though logic could tell us the “overpowered” team is on the skid). The modifying phrase is closest to the noun it modifies. But maybe we left TOO much space. What else could work? 

This works, doesn’t it? It helps elevate the losing streak as part of the storyline. But it’s got a semicolon in it, and I know some people hate those. So let’s keep trying:

Beauty! In the modifying phrase, we replaced the ambiguous “their,” with “whose.” Now there’s no question about “whose” losing streak it is. OK, but we added a comma that the original didn’t have. Even though it’s grammatically correct, maybe this headline writer was trying to get as streamlined as possible. Fine:

I like it. Removing the comma gives it a little bit of a breathless quality, like, “Oh shit the Clippers beat the Knicks who now have a 4-game losing streak and the world is coming to an end and God help us what do we do now?”

Was that so hard?

(Thanks to Dr. Mrs. Oblogatory for her grammatical consultation and expertise!)