Headline trials halted

This headline appeared on the front page of the Guardian website last weekend and came to my attention via Mercedes Durham on Twitter:

Vaccine trials halted after patient fell ill restart

Headline: "Oxford Vaccine trials halted after patient fell ill restart". The word "Oxford" is set off in bold red typeface.

It’s quite the syntactic rug-pull. Everything seems fine and straightforward until that last word, restart, which turns out to be the predicate, forcing the reader to re-evaluate what they’ve just read. The sense is so obscured that it may take a few attempts.

The story itself has a far more intelligible headline: ‘Oxford University resumes Covid-19 vaccine trials’. Cached versions on the Wayback Machine suggest that that’s also how it was originally published – the confusing headline appears only on main pages.

Recently I showed how omitting the relative pronoun that can lead readers up the garden path. It’s especially likely in headlines because of their telegraphic style. This one omits that and also were and a:

Vaccine trials [that were] halted after [a] patient fell ill restart

Dropping that were creates a reduced relative clause, forming the same structure as the classic garden-path sentence ‘The horse raced past the barn fell’ (‘The horse [that was] raced past the barn fell’).

If spatial limits or convention prevented the inclusion of that were, the relative clause could have been favourably set off with commas:

Vaccine trials, halted after patient fell ill, restart

Or, even less conventionally and elegantly, with parentheses or dashes. Or some detail other than the trials’ interruption could have been used that would avoid obvious pitfalls of comprehension.

In editorial and linguistic circles there’s a special name for garden-path constructions in headlines: crash blossoms. The term comes from the 2009 example ‘Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms’.

Did this one confound you as it did me?


22 Responses to Headline trials halted

  1. Virginia Simmon says:

    Keep up your good urgings, Stan, about the creeping omission of the word “that.” I’m starting to get alarmed by all the times I have to add it to text I’m editing. I’ve even had the thought that I should add a “that fee” to compensate for all the rereads required to figure out what the writer is saying. :-)

    • Stan Carey says:

      It really shows the problem with automatically applying a ‘rule’ – and a spurious one at that – instead of using one’s judgement. I like the idea of a ‘that fee’. =)

  2. Franc Bell says:

    Another way of making this headline more legible would be to insert a comma between trials and halted and another comma between ill and restart. But in fact I rather doubt that headline writers would be interested in using any kind of punctuation other than to finish with either question or exclamation marks.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, I make this very suggestion in the post. Headlines often contain a comma (or a colon or dash, and sometimes a semicolon or ellipsis), but two commas to set off a relative clause is quite uncommon.

  3. The simplest rewrite would be “Vaccine trials restart after halt when patient fell ill”.

  4. I definitely was confused by that. I also never understood how “The horse raced past the barn fell” was a sentence until you explained it here. It would never in a million years have occurred to me on my own that “raced past the barn” was a descriptor rather than a predicate.

  5. mazblast says:

    Headlines are often created in a hurry and often by a non-senior person in the newsroom, an intern or junior writer, and not by the article writer or a senior (and presumably newsroom veteran) editor. Bad spelling and worse grammar and syntax often abounds.

    In my thankfully long ago days on the business side of a so-called newspaper, I used to mock the local paper (a sister publication of our national rag) for its terrible headlines, and nothing has changed in the 33 years since I left that position.

    My mother still calls me to decipher what some headlines are trying to say–
    “If that’s what they’re trying to say in the headline, why don’t they just say it?”
    “Because they’re idiots and leave the headlines to people who don’t know what the article concerns. How many times do I have to tell you this?”

    • Virginia Simmon says:

      As a magazine editor, I once had a proofreader who formerly worked for a newspaper. She complained unmercifully about headlines, mainly because she couldn’t do anything about them.

      Having known that, I’ve always assumed that, judging from the way they’re written, the attempt was to fill the line(s) of type without anything hanging over.

      That same newspaper today is suffering (as are most, if not all, print media), and I’ve noticed that occasionally a headline is simply lifted from the story. The headlines I’ve always loved are the “punny” ones, but I don’t see many of them these days.

      • Stan Carey says:

        I can sympathize. Last year I was asked to write an article for the Guardian about the c-word. When it was published, I felt obliged to distance myself from the headline, ‘Why is everyone suddenly using the C-word?’, since it wasn’t accurate and didn’t reflect the content of the article, which was about the word’s taboo status.

        Punny headlines are far more common in tabloid newspapers, so I seldom see them. But I appreciate the skill in creating good headlines, punny or not, since I often struggle to compose them for blog posts.

      • ktschwarz says:

        Search engines are to blame for the decline of witty, punny headlines, according to This Boring Headline Is Written for Google (from the New York Times in 2006, but I think the trend has continued): puns don’t get high search rankings since computers don’t understand how a pun is related to the literal topic.

        My votes for all-time champion punny headlines:
        “Apres Mao, Le Deluge?” (the uncertainty of China’s direction after Mao, written shortly before his death)
        “Condimental Drift” (salsa overtakes ketchup in sales in the US)

        • Stan Carey says:

          I remember reading that NYT piece (or a similar one) at the time and lamenting the trend. So I’m glad to see that punny headlines haven’t entirely died out. Occasionally I see punny ones on the page but more algorithm-friendly text in the URL, like a compromise, though I doubt that’s explicitly policy anywhere.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I wouldn’t describe headlinese as containing ‘bad’ grammar or syntax, since it’s not meant to use the same norms as ordinary prose – even if some of its conventions are strange and can be hard to parse. (The ‘headlines’ tag on this blog has a bunch of examples, some of them crash blossoms.)

      With many of the more cryptic or otherwise ill-judged examples, I’m inclined to attribute it to time pressure or a kind of journalistic nerdview / professional conditioning, rather than idiocy. In the example in this post, I think the relative clause should have been omitted altogether.

  6. Catbar UK says:

    Really, I feel that some headline/copy-writers and journalists seem to almost take pride in showing off their lack of education, or in showing off what they see as ‘being modern’ – ie, none of that ‘old-fashioned’ stuff like bothering with grammar, punctuation, or good sentence-structure.

    As one of the posters, Franc Bell, wrote:
    [quote] “But in fact I rather doubt that headline writers would be interested in using any kind of punctuation other than to finish with either question or exclamation marks.” [unquote]

    Exactly! They’re far more interested in sensationalism and simply dashing off any old thing, as long as it can have exclamation marks.

    • Stan Carey says:

      As I noted in an earlier comment, I don’t think it makes sense to judge headlines by comparison with ordinary prose, since they use different conventions. Requiring them to adhere to full, formal norms of grammar and sentence structure would make them prohibitively unwieldy. Few enough seem to use exclamation marks too, at least in the newspapers I look at.

  7. Helen says:

    Thank you for this, for clarifying & explaining. The “garden path constructions” is a new phrase to me but one I will steal & use with impunity. The failure to punctuate or, as you suggest omit the word “that” deserves a tongue lashing at the very least, for pure laziness

    • Stan Carey says:

      ‘Garden path’ is a good metaphor for it. If laziness lies behind the headline, which I’m not convinced about, then I think it’s more a case of laziness of imagination than of writing.

  8. Catbar UK says:

    Sadly, most of these headline/copy writers and journalists seem to lack any humility or sense of embarrassment – instead, seeming almost PROUD to be so arrogantly ignorant, insular, unimaginative and slapdash.

    As Helen writes, they ‘deserve a good tongue lashing’ – but I don’t suppose they’ll ever get one.

  9. Perhaps even if “restart” was worded “restarted,” the reader would see it as a verb and also see parallel construction with “halted.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Even if a reader correctly interprets restart as a verb in the original, the headline is confusing and likely to require, well, restarting. I’m not convinced that “Vaccine trials halted after patient fell ill restarted” would improve it significantly.

      My vote – and acknowledging that I’ve had more time to think about it than the headline writer did – would probably be something like:

      Vaccine trials restart after safety assessment

      The detail about the patient who got sick could be deferred to the subhead and article – it doesn’t seem especially compatible with a clear and concise headline, unless the double-comma approach is taken.

  10. […] ambiguity. The one in this post likely won’t wrong-foot very many people – compare the last crash blossom I wrote about: ‘Vaccine trials halted after patient fell ill restart’. But it’s still […]

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