Unlikely syntax will lead to clarity

This Reuters story about monkeypox, published on 30 May 2022, has an unfortunate ambiguity in its headline:

Beneath the Reuters logo is the headline, in black on white: 'Unlikely monkeypox outbreak will lead to pandemic, WHO says'

The same headline appeared on sites syndicating the report, like Yahoo! News and Nasdaq, and with trivial differences at the US’s ABC News, India’s Business Standard, Singapore’s Straits Times, and others.

The problem is the main clause:

Unlikely monkeypox outbreak will lead to pandemic

The intended reading, expanded from headlinese, is:

It is unlikely that the monkeypox outbreak will lead to a pandemic

But it’s also possible, and not a huge stretch, to completely misinterpret it as:

The unlikely monkeypox outbreak will lead to a pandemic

The monkeypox outbreak is not wildly unlikely, because of spillover infections resulting from increasing human encroachment on wild habitats (if you’ll permit the oversimplification). But it caught a lot of people in the West off guard, because the disease is normally restricted to parts of the African continent.

So it’s fair to say that the outbreak seemed unlikely to many people when they first heard about it (even if it also seemed morbidly fitting in the current ecological climate). ‘Unlikely monkeypox outbreak’ is therefore a perfectly conceivable noun phrase, with unlikely modifying monkeypox outbreak rather than a full clause. The result is well-formed, meaningful, plausible, and utterly misleading.

The full implied clause, as I’ve noted above, is:

It is unlikely that the monkeypox outbreak will lead to a pandemic

But only the word that is needed to quash the ambiguity:

Unlikely that monkeypox outbreak will lead to pandemic

Reordering is another option, albeit less felicitous:

Monkeypox outbreak unlikely to lead to pandemic

Journalists love to omit that whenever they can, not least in headlines. But sometimes they really shouldn’t – even if the ensuing crash blossoms* generate fun for editors, critics, and linguists.

As I said of another ill-advised omission of that in 2020, in a corrective to Strunk and White’s peevish parsimony, it’s unwise to omit words if you lack the judgement to know which words are truly needless.

[hat-tip to Elisa Gabbert on Twitter]


* A crash blossom is a news headline with garden-path 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 ambiguous, and easily avoided.

6 Responses to Unlikely syntax will lead to clarity

  1. Mick Smith says:

    Personally, I find the idea of a disease called monkey pox rather unlikely…

  2. astraya says:

    Given the likelihood of some spread, maybe we could say ‘Likely monkeypox outbreak unlikely to lead to pandemic’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That generates other problems, though. One is that the outbreak has already occurred, so ‘Likely’ doesn’t apply (and wouldn’t be used retrospectively in a headline). But maybe you were just playing with the symmetry.

  3. KASpencer says:

    Governments spend billions of pounds and dollars of taxpayers’ money trying to educate the children in their populations. However, illiterate people in the media (especially TV and print) seem to be able to destroy any beneficial results of that spending by their failure to read, listen and check their English.
    Where are the editors? Why aren’t they supervising the writes? They are probably in the pub, I suppose.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That seems like declinist hyperbole. The media workers you’re referring to are not illiterate, and they’re not destroying the results of state education. In this case it’s more likely they’ve just become over-habituated to the stylistic formulas of news reporting and have forgotten how unintuitive, even peculiar, that style can sometimes appear to people outside of the niche. It’s also a pressurized and often time-sensitive environment.

      Headlines are generally written by editors, but maybe that question was rhetorical.

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