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Today’s Washington Post article titled, “Romney wins big in Arizona, AP says” begins with the following sentence:

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was headed for a decisive victory in Arizona Tuesday night, where he had the support of the state’s governor, Jan Brewer, and a sizable contingent of Mormon voters.

I am interested in why it isn’t “Mitt Romney headed for a decisive victory,” in the active voice as “Romney wins big in Arizona.”

If I put it “Romney headed for a victory,” am I making a serious grammatical error?

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It's unlikely "Romney headed for victory" would be used, because that would mean he made a single one-off action causing him to be en route to victory. The intention is to report that he was in the continuous state of heading/being headed towards victory - it just so happens that American usage here allows this to be done using what looks like a "passive" form of the verb without including the word "being". – FumbleFingers Feb 29 '12 at 4:40
They are in fact reporting the state Romney was in, not anything he had done. – David Schwartz Feb 29 '12 at 5:08
up vote 1 down vote accepted
  • the phrase

X was headed for...

is not in the passive voice. It does superficially look like a passive: 'X was sent' means some agent 'sent' X somewhere. But here 'headed' is acting like an adjective.

  • the sentence:

Romney headed for a victory.

is not grammatically incorrect at all, just not particularly natural sounding and that is why it was not used. 'head' here, as a verb, is allowed but as in 'I go ' vs 'I am going', the latter progressive is much, much more common. 'X headed for Y' is very natural sounding when Y is a location; here it doesn't sound right because 'Y' is not literally a location (though it works metaphorically just fine in 'X was headed for a victory').

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My basic question was why “head for” was used in passive voice, though “head” can be used as an intransitive verb without laboring to put “was.” But if “headed” functions as (not necessarily is) an adjective as you say, it solves my question. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 29 '12 at 22:13
@Yoichi Oishi: Per my answer, Br. Eng. wouldn't normally use "headed" this way, but both sides of the Atlantic would be equally at home with the structurally identical were bound for glory. – FumbleFingers Feb 29 '12 at 23:55

The usage you mention is typical for election-evening reporting of ephemeral results. That is, when the headline appeared online a few hours ago, or perhaps when the printed paper hit the streets, the Arizona polls had not yet closed and the official result had yet to be declared. If the result is no longer in doubt when the article is read, "was headed" will be more accurate than "is headed". For example, articles available now appear not to include the "was headed" wording, instead leading with "Mitt Romney won the Arizona primary Tuesday".

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As Mahnax says, the usage is "progressive" tense - it doesn't report an isolated action in the past (something Romney did to put himself on the road to victory). It means that at some point prior to the Arizona primary results being declared, Romney looked/was looking likely to be declared the winner on Tuesday night. The sense, if not the tense, is thus past perfect continuous.

In British English this would be "was heading for" enter image description here

...but in American English it's more likely to be "was headed for" enter image description here

I'm not sure why American usage favours "passive voice" here, but I think it might be connected with the fact that the usage is primarily journalese. From the journalist's point of view (esp. an American one), politicians don't really "head" anywhere under their own steam - they're directed / driven there by the press, public opinion, campaign machines, vested interests, etc. Seen in that light, arguably the passive really is more appropriate, even though it seems odd to me as a Brit.

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Where did you get these graphs from? Thanks. – nicholas ainsworth Feb 29 '12 at 7:19
@nicholas ainsworth: They're both the same NGram (graphing front-end for Google Books) query, but the highlighted link above each chart leads to a different "filter" being applied to the results shown. The first is only books published in the UK, the second, only in the US. – FumbleFingers Feb 29 '12 at 13:51

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