Is the headline of this blog correct?

Does Online Learning Offer the Same Value as Face-to-Face Instruction? College Presidents & the General Public Disagree

When I read the headline I thought both College Presidents and the general public disagree that online learning learning can offer same value as face-to-face instruction. But when I read the article it actually meant that College Presidents and the general public had a disagreement on the issue. Is the headline genuinely ambiguous or am I the one misunderstanding? If it is wrong, then what would be the correct headline to represent the intended idea?


It is confusing because there are two possible ways to interpret the sentence "College Presidents & the General Public Disagree" (taken on its own):

  • They, as a combined party, disagree with [some viewpoint] together


  • They disagree with each other

When put in context of the first sentence, @Thursagen pointed out, the first option is impossible, because the sentence "Does Online Learning Offer the Same Value as Face-to-Face Instruction?" offers a choice, not a single viewpoint.

That means that the second is the only plausible option, but this fact may not be noticed by most readers, particularly because "disagree" may, in this case, be interpreted as a negative answer to the yes-or-no question posed. However, I (personally) believe that would be somewhat of a misuse of the word disagree.

To retain most of the structure, but reduce confusion, I would suggest making the second sentence more direct:

Does online learning offer the same value as face-to-face instruction? College presidents & the general public have differing viewpoints.

  • I applaud you for the diplomatic way you expressed this. Personally, I found the headline not at all confusing. – John Y Aug 29 '11 at 22:11
  • Then you would have to argue that "Does an apple a day really keep the doctor away? This doctor disagrees" is flat out incorrect. After all, he can't disagree with himself. And the first sentence offers a choice, not a single viewpoint. Yet I think it's quite clear that this means that there's a doctor who thinks an apple a day doesn't keep the doctor away. – David Schwartz Aug 29 '11 at 23:30
  • 1
    @David, personally, I would say that is flat-out incorrect (and I tried to address this in my answer originally, though I've reworded it slightly now for clarity). I think it is an incorrect use of the word disagree. However, I agree that it may be interpreted this way by some portion of readers, and therefore may be used by some writers. I suppose this is a case where English is only as correct as its usage. – Nicole Aug 30 '11 at 0:11

Although I concede that the people saying that the headline is ambiguous are technically correct, from a practical standpoint I don't think the headline is very confusing at all.

For one thing, if the headline can be properly interpreted as saying that the named parties speak in unison on the issue, it should still make sense if we reduce the parties from many to one:

Does Online Learning Offer the Same Value as Face-to-Face Instruction? President of Harvard Disagrees

Disagrees with what? That online learning offers the same value as face-to-face instruction, or that it doesn't? This headline is clearly nonsensical, which suggests that the alternate interpretation (that the parties disagree with one another) is the correct one.

In a real-world sense, I believe most readers are probably accustomed to the “Views Differ” style of headline, which merely states that a controversy exists, often in a (perhaps misguided) effort to appear evenhanded--consider Paul Krugman's famous quip: “If Bush said that the earth was flat ... the mainstream media, for the most part, would run articles with the headline 'Shape of the Earth: Views Differ.'” It is in this light, I believe, that most readers would interpret the headline.

  • 1
    You make a good point: headlines do not have to be unambiguous, and they don't necessarily mislead by leaving some ambiguity (though some occasionally turn into garden path sentences). Headlines can follow a telegraphic style (which means they omit words we normally require for utterances to be grammatical) and they can deliberately leave questions in an effort to drive the reader toward the story. – aedia λ Aug 29 '11 at 23:01
  • The counter-argument to your argument would be this headline: "Think online learning offers the same value as face-to-face instruction? President of Harvard disagrees." Or even "Does an apple a day keep the doctor away? These doctors disagree." Saying "X disagrees" can implicitly mean "X disagrees with you", so it's not ambiguous so long as there's some way the speaker/writer could know or assume your position. If, for example, the reader had the view that most people think the two forms of learning do offer the same value, "disagrees" could mean with the general/expected view. – David Schwartz Aug 29 '11 at 23:27
  • @David Your first example is a different problem altogether. The given sentence is not the same form. The second example is the same form, but you're wrong about it. Implied "you" does not cover assigning a belief to the "you". It would be entirely valid for the reader to assume that the doctors agree with the general principle (fruit is good for you) and interpret your sentence the other way. it's not ambiguous so long as there's some way the speaker/writer could know or assume your position -- the entire point is that there's not more context. Headlines should make sense standing alone. – Matthew Read Aug 30 '11 at 3:50
  • If you can't tell what it says because there's not more context, then it's ambiguous. That's my point. You are the one disagreeing. If more context can change its meaning, then it's ambiguous. – David Schwartz Aug 30 '11 at 4:03

I think that the headline is grammatically correct, but it's written in a confusing way (I misunderstood it too).

Most of all, the & really makes it seems as if College Presidents and General Public are together in this matter, while they are not.

I would have written it as

[...] College Presidents disagree with the General Public


This is a very good point out! Yes, this headline is dodgy. Why?

The headline has not stated any one side of the issue mentioned. It has just asked a question, of whether "Online learning" is better than "face-to-face Instruction".

No one has said anything as to what anyone thinks about this, then suddenly the College Presidents & General Public Disagrees. With what? Who are you disagreeing with? No one has made a statement of opinion yet!

Reaffirming, this headline is ambiguous.

Due to the comment below, I see that there might be another possible meaning, and that is, the General Public disagrees with the College Presidents. Because the headlines is ambiguous, I would suggest that a clearer way of writing this would be:

... College Presidents & General Public disagrees with one another

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    To be fair, I think the point you've made (that there is no position to disagree with) actually backs up the intended meaning -- which is that the two parties disagree with each other. In other words, because the alternative makes no sense, the above must be the only meaning. That makes it confusing but not completely ambiguous. – Nicole Aug 29 '11 at 21:37
  • It can mean the two parties jointly disagree with the prevailing view, when the prevailing view is the positive. "Think 9/11 was orchestrated by terrorists? These conspiracy theorists disagree." It's quite clear that the first part states the prevailing view and the crazies jointly disagree with the prevailing view. – David Schwartz Aug 29 '11 at 23:32
  • @David, I see you've made that claim on every answer here that has taken this view, however, as @Matthew Read pointed out, "Think [some viewpoint]?" is indeed a completely different form. The form given in the original question does not state a prevailing view. – Nicole Aug 30 '11 at 18:40
  • At most, he points to a defect in my example. (And I actually raise different claims in the different responses.) Consider: "Was 9/11 really orchestrated by terrorists? These conspiracy theorists disagree." "Does an apple a day really keep the doctor away? These doctors disagree." So long as the reader can infer that there is some prevailing view, you can use "disagree" to mean disagreeing with that prevailing view. And, in any event, "Does X.." and "Think X.." both mention only one viewpoint, X, which they call into question. – David Schwartz Aug 30 '11 at 19:16
  • @David I've already pointed out that I don't agree with your usage of the word "disagree", though your new examples are still constructed by addition of the word "really", which is not present in the original and does add to the effect of an implied prevailing view. – Nicole Aug 30 '11 at 20:17

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