It’s a while since Sentence first featured a crash blossom – those headlines that lead you up the garden path, semantically speaking – so here’s one from the front page of today’s BBC news website: Girl found alive in France murders car.
[Full story here. It’s not pleasant.]
The ambiguity hinges on the phrase murders car, which suggests a surreal and impossible crime (a girl murders a car) but really constitutes part of an unusual compound noun, France murders car: a car implicated in murders in France. In which a girl was found alive.
France murders car also qualifies as a distant compound, like blast boy, canoe wife and pumpkin bus – multiple-noun compounds intelligible only to readers familiar with the relationship between the nouns, or who can guess at the story behind them.
The BBC report itself contains another syntactic ambiguity:
The girl found away from the car – thought to be seven or eight years old – was shot three times and seriously injured, and the younger daughter – only four – hid beneath her mother and was not even found until midnight, our correspondent says.
Though it quickly becomes clear from the context that seven or eight years old refers to a girl and not the car, this could have been signalled more clearly – by inserting she is inside the first pair of dashes, for example.
Nor is this the first time a headline has conferred life on a transportation vehicle: a couple of years ago I wrote about the strange implications of “Sound Transit train hits teenage girl, survives”.
[Hat-tip to @mrdarnley.]
Fev at headsup suggests a simple change that would avoid the crash blossom: “Girl found alive in France murder car”.
This is just one of the consequences of the BBC’s insane habit of using France instead of French, etc. etc. Sometimes it makes sense, but it seems someone has ordained that the name should be used in headlines, even if it is no shorter than the adjective. (Thus: headline reads ‘France premier too short’ main text ‘The French premier should be taller, says …)
Apologies: ranting got the better of me. The above is not to the point!
Maybe the girl was taking out the car in self defence, lest she end up like the unfortunate youth mentioned in Language Log yesterday: “Cirencester teenager breaks jaw in alleged attack by kebab van” – story from the Wilts & Gloucestershire Standard
Harry: No apologies needed. In this case, changing France to French in the headline would remove the major ambiguity but introduce another. The car is British-registered, and French murders car could suggest otherwise.
Chris: That’s a wonderful example, thank you. I visited Language Log only briefly yesterday, so I’m glad to be reminded of that post and to read the comments. (I embedded your link for tidiness’ sake.)
Do you think placing France murders under single quotes would have done the job? Or would it look like a disingenuous air quote?
[…] neologism, but also breaks down the reasons that English so easily becomes ambiguous”*. A more recent example of a crash blossom inspired me to Google** the origins of the […]
The BBC must have read your blog post, Stan, because the title now reads:
“France shootings: Girl hid under bodies in car”
I expect somebody got their knuckles rapped for the earlier attempt!
The best example of the BBC website use of the distant compound was the headline “Brown promise to knife boy” after the PM made a commitment to a boy who had been stabbed… stabbed wouldn’t fit. I think the BBC uses “France” instead of “french” because it is better for Search Engine Optimisation. fewer people would sit down to google and search for “French murder” than would sit down and type “Murder France” or something. The design limiting the number of characters in the headline leads to much scratching of heads, and in an atmosphere where the news must be put up quickly, to some misunderstandings.
aparnauteur: Girl found alive in ‘France murders’ car would greatly reduce the ambiguity, but I think the headline needs more radical rephrasing. Your suggestion would, however, qualify as ‘scary quotes’ (a facetious subset of ‘claim quotes’).
Emma: I imagine they received a few emails about it! Let’s hope there was no unnecessary violence in the BBC offices.
wordwrangler: Thanks for your insight. SEO may well have had something to do with the choice. I don’t remember seeing the “Brown promise to knife boy” headline – I wonder how many people inadvertently verbed promise when they glanced at it.
If say the headline-in-question had had a comma after France, i.e., ‘Girl is found alive in France, murders car’, then it would become perhaps an even less inherently ambiguous statement, but nonethe less come off as maybe even more none-sensical than it already is?
I get the intent of the headline scribe; that he’s using ‘France’, relative to ‘murders car’ (the car where the murders transpired), in the possessive sense. ‘French’, rather than ‘France’, as some other commenters have already opined, may have add a smidgen more clarity to an already confusing ‘header’. (So really no point in changing it.)
Pray tell, how does one murder an inanimate object, like a vehicle, other than say, in the metaphoric sense of ‘killing’ the engine? HA!
Brings back memories of that John Carpenter directed 1983 “killer car” “B”-movie, “Christine”, where the young protagonist, a majorly bullied teen, has basically refurbished and then anthropomorphized an old dilapidated junker of a car, to become his surrogate love interest, “Christine”, and his eventual total fixation in life. Predictably, in the spirit of just revenge, increasingly diabolical scenarios ensue, as “Christine” takes on a menacing life of her own. (What’s that old saying about ‘a woman scorned’?)
Geez, really…..what would one expect from a Stephen King- ‘adapted’ film? Dah!
In a similar vein, one can’t ignore the sleeper Spielberg hit TV-then filmic surreal, psycho-drama, “Duel”, from the early ’70s.
Here, a seemingly driverless, huge Peterbilt semi-truck is in relentless pursuit of a hapless, hyper-anxious, ordinary-type guy, driving cross-country in his ’60s-era Plymouth, played to near perfection by actor Dennis Weaver. Never has a vehicle on four wheels been s-o-o-o darn bad-ass scary. Trust me. But I digress.
Stan, very cool if someone on the eagle-eyed BBC online news staff actually read your blog this morning, saw the madness-in-their-method, and were motivated, (and embarrassed enough), to rework the ‘header’ for their later edition(s).
A little FYI update.
Yahoo! news, earlier today, ran a headline ‘teaser’ for an article re/ the aftermath of this unfortunate murder scenario in Europe involving the ill-fated family, namely: ‘Girl hid under bodies after French Alps shootings’.
For me that one has a bit of a clumsy construction, as well, but not nearly as obtuse as the BBC’s earlier bone-headed online effort.
(Maybe Yahoo!’s ‘header’ is perfectly fine, and I’m just being too picky?)
I think the real issue here is that the desired interpretation of this headline is right-associatuve, but left-associative constructions are vastly more frequent in English, so when presented with a sentence that is truly ambiguous, like this one, one’s parser normally prefers the left-associative parse.
I think the main thing we need to take away from this story is that Pumpkin Bus would be an excellent name for a band.
Alex: Yahoo’s headline reads fine to me. I doubt my blog post had any effect at the BBC; more likely the initial headline was a bit hurried, and they revised it after consideration (or maybe a few readers’ emails). Duel is a great film, one of Spielberg’s best.
Garrett: That’s a good point. And even as headline noun clusters go, it takes considerable work to interpret “France murders car” the way it was intended.
John: Ha, yes. On stage tonight with support from the Smuggle Plot Tomatoes.
I once read somewhere,
I like succinct headlines, but I’d rather spend five extra seconds taking in the information than waste thirty seconds scratching my head while figuring out where the qualifier ends and the noun begins.
Bharat: I agree entirely with your feelings about concision in headlines. The line you quoted is true in many but not all cases: poetry, for instance, is often deliberately and beneficially elusive or ambiguous.
Shaun: It was unfortunate.
On the Guardian today: “Alps shooting girl conscious again”
Thanks, Allen. The Guardian‘s phrase (a headline, presumably) is not ambiguous but it does offer another rather odd compound noun.
It’s a very sad story.