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
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.
Did this one confound you as it did me?