I read a headline like the following in today's newspaper.
"Paying ransom a nonstarter in review of freeing captives"
I don't get it at all. Can somebody explain the structure of the sentence and its meaning?
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As others have said, when you interpret headlines, you need to figure out what the missing words would be.
In this case, I'd expand the headline to:
Paying ransom would be a nonstarter in review of freeing captives
In other words, imagine a room full of people discussing strategy:
Ed: We want captives freed. What should we do?
Ted: Maybe we should pay the ransoms.
Ned: No, Ted, don't even go there. We're not even going to consider that.
If I was a reporter trying summarize that meeting, I might say:
Paying ransom a nonstarter in review of freeing captives
Another way the headline could be expanded is by adding an is:
Paying ransom is a nonstarter in review of freeing captives
This would align nicely with the definition of the word found in Collins:
non-starter (n.) a worthless idea