I noticed this headline in the list of breaking news on the Yahoo landing page:
• Sotomayor wins over GOP backers after smooth hearings
At first I read the verb wins as the main verb and over GOP backers as a prepositional phrase. Read that way, the meaning of the headline was that Sotomayor had defeated “GOP backers” in some kind of competition.
But I knew that couldn’t be right. For one thing, Sotomayor wasn’t competing against anyone in the hearings. For another, one doesn’t compete against one’s backers.
So then I decided that what I had in front of me was the phrasal verb win over, meaning “persuade, gain one’s support.”
That made a little more sense, but as far I could recall, Sotomayor went into the hearings without any GOP backers.
I clicked on the confusing headline to read the story. I found my answer in the lead:
WASHINGTON – Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor won her first public pledges of support from Senate Republicans and one prominent GOP opponent, after a smooth performance at her confirmation hearings that has placed her firmly on track to become the high court’s first Latina and the first Democratic-named justice in 15 years.
Finally, I understood what the headline meant. Sotomayor had acquired some backers from among the Republican senators.
The biggest obstacle to understanding for me was the word “backers” used with the phrasal verb “wins over.” I could see how she might “win backers” or “win over some Republicans,” but not how she could “win over backers.” If someone is a “backer” he doesn’t need to be “won over” by the person he’s already backing.
Not every reader would have boggled at this particular headline as I did. Nevertheless, writers need to be aware of the possibilities for ambiguity that exist with the use of phrasal verbs.
Sometimes it is better to replace a phrasal verb with a less ambiguous single verb, especially in writing intended for an audience that includes non-native English speakers.
For example, we can put out the cat and put out a light; take out a girl and take out an enemy.
Alternatives exist for most phrasal verbs. For example:
put the cat outside
extinguish a light
take a girl on a date
kill an enemy
You may not always be able to hit on a suitable alternative, but it’s something to consider when revising a manuscript for clarity.