Fears crawling, crash blossoming

This headline on the front page of today’s Guardian caught my eye for reasons both ecological and syntactic. See what you make of it before reading on:

guardian headline crash blossom - fears crawling, invasive fish

In normal prose it might read: There are fears that a crawling, invasive fish could create a ‘major disaster’. Headlines often forgo the existential there (‘dummy pronoun’) and its attendant verb is or are, the relative pronoun that, and the indefinite article a. But omitting all of them in this context generates ambiguities.

The adjective crawling can be reanalysed as a verb inflected for progressive tense: Fears [are] crawling. Maybe fears are crawling [that an] invasive fish could create a major disaster.

Or crawling could be read as a gerund, with Australia the grammatical subject that fears it: Australia fears crawling. This possibility should be precluded by the slash, the colour change, and the capital f in fears, but someone glancing at it absent-mindedly could take a step down that garden path. One person I showed it to read it as: Australia fears [that a] crawling, invasive fish could create a major disaster.

The clause invasive fish could create a ‘major disaster’ is independent, which may reinforce an instinctive misreading: the comma then serves to splice the two parts of the headline instead of being analysed as a listing comma. (Cf. Man shot in chest, leg knocks on door for help.)

The headline on the story itself is straightforward:

guardian headline full - fears crawling, invasive fish

You might notice that the article has an example of hypercorrect fewer (‘fewer than 10km south of the PNG mainland’), but I’ll leave discussion of that for a future post – even if fears are crawling that I’ll never get around to it.

I had no difficulty parsing the crash blossom Fears crawling, invasive fish… But it did strike me as quite opaque, and I paused to review my initial reading and see if there were plausible alternatives. How does it seem to you? Did you have any trouble interpreting it?

Update:

The headline for this BBC story was originally ‘Alps crash remains land in Germany’, with remains a particular source of ambiguity. It was soon revised to: ‘Germanwings crash: Victims’ remains land in Duesseldorf’.

21 Responses to Fears crawling, crash blossoming

  1. Harry Lake says:

    Depends what you mean by ‘trouble’, Stan. I had no trouble interpreting it, but surely the point is that I shouldn’t need to interpret it – not consciously, anyway. So perhaps my answer is Yes, perhaps No. Or Both. If you’re really asking if I had to stop and think about it, the answer is certainly Yes – and I would have had to do so even without your advice that we saw what we made of it before continuing.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, I’m wondering if other readers had to stop and think about it to make sense of it. If it helps, replace ‘interpreting’ with ‘understanding’ in the last line of the post.

      • thebluebird11 says:

        Yes, I thought Australia feared crawling…I had to read on to find out why. There is a medical website I subscribe to, and they have a habit of running headliners one after the other, and it’s sometimes unclear where one ends and the next begins. Considering that this is all virtual, it’s not as if we need to conserve ink and space; there is plenty of room to put in a little word that might help (in the case of the fearful Australians, “that”). Brevity is the soul of “what?!”

      • Stan Carey says:

        ‘it’s not as if we need to conserve ink and space; there is plenty of room to put in a little word that might help’

        bluebird: This is how I feel about it too. I know headlines have their own formulas and traditions, and old habits die hard, but it might be worth dropping this one in situations where confusion is otherwise likely to arise. Adding that goes against some editorial tendencies, but clarity should take precedence. Your last line is an apt slogan!

  2. raccontando says:

    I would never have interpreted as “fears are crawling”. Can fears crawl? It doesn’t sound likely – or at least not as likely as a crawling fish.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, they can. For example: ‘Secrets, she thought, feeling a cold, clammy fear crawling down her neck’ (from Mask of deception by Sara Wood, found in the British National Corpus via Skylight).

      • Harry Lake says:

        I agree with Stan. The word crawl might never in the history of English have been used directly of fears, but I would straight away accept, for example (and to borrow Stan’s example), ‘she felt a creeping fear that …’ – and if I can accept ‘creeping’, why not ‘crawling’, perhaps the closest thing there is to a perfect synonym of creeping?

        Some figures from the famous search engine:
        “a creeping fear” site:uk About 2,160 results
        “a crawling fear” site:uk About 2,200 results – but this is just the FSE being the FSE; it continues: Showing results for “a crippling fear” site:uk … and then of course: Search instead for “a crawling fear” site:uk – which produces:
        8 results, half of them for the same text. But still, I’m only saying…

  3. johnwhye415 says:

    It is indeed confusing!

  4. David L says:

    I wanted to read “fears crawling” as an adjectival phrase describing the state of mind of the fish, and explaining why they are about to invade Australia. The fish have been spooked by something terrible out there in the deep ocean, and now, their worst fears acrawl, they are headed for Oz…

    I can see the movie already.

  5. Stan Carey says:

    John: More than it should be!

    David: That’s another (grammatically valid) way of reading it. And it does have the air of a 1970s natural-disaster B-movie.

  6. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Perhaps Lynne Truss might write a book about it.

  7. hitherkusum says:

    Alternatively, the headline could have been written as “Fears major disaster by crawling, invasive fish”., i order to avoid ambiguity. What’s your take?

  8. Stan Carey says:

    Marc: Now my fears really are crawling.

    hitherkusum: That removes some of the ambiguity but it’s still problematic, because the grammar and the grammatical subject are unclear.

  9. John Roth says:

    I didn’t have a problem, but that’s most likely because I read “Australia” as the subject and the comma as an adjective separator.

    • Stan Carey says:

      John: This seems to have happened for a few people. Australia is not the intended grammatical subject, just the general topic, but on this occasion the meaning neatly amounts to the same thing.

  10. raccontando says:

    I meant “fears” plural! All your examples are “a fear”. I don’t have access to the British National Corpus but it doesn’t sound “right” to me – at least it wouldn’t be my first interpretation.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You don’t need access to the BNC to find examples. If you search for “fears are crawling” on Google you’ll find plenty. I’m not saying it’s a typical expression, just that it’s a possible interpretation of the headline.

  11. Virginia says:

    Yikes! I initially read it as “Fears are crawling,” and until I read your piece, couldn’t figure out what it was really saying. Even the insertion of a simple “a” would have helped: “Fears a crawling, invasive fish …”

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s a potentially tricky one all right, Virginia. Adding ‘a’ might help a little – or it could lead readers to misinterpret it as Fears a-crawling…!

  12. astraya says:

    Apropos of not much, two headlines side-by-side on a news website this morning are “Love triangle stabbing in court” and “Refugees’ ‘promised land'”. The second one is disambiguated by the apostrophe, but the first is very worrying.

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