Unlikely syntax will lead to clarity

June 1, 2022

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:

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Headline trials halted

September 16, 2020

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.

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Fears crawling, crash blossoming

June 2, 2015

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

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More clichéd than previously thought

July 24, 2013

A lesser known cliché in journalism, especially science reporting, is the construction than previously thought. It doesn’t always take that precise form – sometimes it’s than originally thought, or than previously believed, or than scientists/anyone previously thought, or just than thought – but that’s the general structure, and it. is. ubiquitous.

Search for site:sciencedaily.com “previously thought” on Google, or try other news websites in the site: slot, and you’ll see what a journalistic crutch it is. I remember grumbling about it on Twitter once and then seeing it in the next two articles I read.

I’ve also mentioned it on this blog, in a comment a few years ago, where I described it as a meaningless and hackneyed device that may be meant to add novelty and excitement to a story, but doesn’t; instead, it implies that no scientist has any imagination whatsoever.

The number of times I’ve read than previously thought and thought, Actually, that’s not a surprise at all, or No, I’ve had that very thought before – well, it’s probably even more than previously thought.

But there is an upside. In its most elliptical form, than thought, it can generate amusing semantic ambiguities, as in this recent example from Discovery News (via @brandalisms): “Death Happens More Slowly Than Thought”, to which one might reasonably reply: It depends on the thought. (Cf. “Human genome far more active than thought”.)

Discovery crash blossom headline - death happens more slowly than thought

Yes, it’s a crash blossom (i.e., a headline with garden-path ambiguity), a mild one, but the first I’ve written about in a while. I guess the lesson is: When life hands you clichés, make crash blossoms (or other linguistic fun). Not always possible, of course, but maybe more often than prev—

BBC crash blossom: Girl murders car?

September 6, 2012

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.

Revenge for ‘The Cars That Ate Paris’, perhaps?

[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”.

A grisly crash blossom

February 8, 2012

What would you do to escape prosecution?

Crash blossoms, as you may know, are headlines that can lead you up the garden path, semantically speaking.

Today’s Irish Times has a mild one. The word to, commonly used in headlines to indicate futurity (as in the example above), here inadvertently generates an alternative meaning in which the Dutch TV presenters ate human flesh in order to escape prosecution.

It’s a wild idea.

The headline is unlikely to be misunderstood, but it has the potential to cause a momentary miscue — replacing to with will would avoid it — and it is grammatically interesting.

There are more crash blossoms here, at Language Log (including the recent gem “Does Donald Trump support matter?”), and on the Crash Blossoms blog.

The sex scientific research show

September 12, 2010

Roll up, roll up! Please form an orderly queue for the all-new, all-outrageous Sex Scientific Research Show! According to the Australian Daily Telegraph, fat men enjoy this carnival of degenerate academia when it lasts longer:

Where to begin with such a headline? For starters, it’s cynical, sloppy, and daft. It’s a barely significant generalisation dressed up as a salient fact. Ambiguity compounds its wrongness: it’s supposed to mean that (some) fat men have longer lasting sex, but the Telegraph‘s use of enjoy suggests that they might not enjoy it if it didn’t last as long.

And have or enjoy what? This too is open to misinterpretation. Summarising the research in lucid headlinese requires rearranging the above (e.g., “Scientific research shows…”) or placing a comma after sex and an s at the end of show. Without them the headline is made sillier still, because it changes the object from longer lasting sex to longer lasting sex scientific research show.

The last three words are probably intended to stress the article’s pseudo-respectability. There are fewer pretensions at the Weekly World News, which offers the snappier but equally inane “Study: Fat Men Better In Bed”. Granted, the apparent source of this ‘news’ has a much duller title and conclusion, and it appears in a journal few men would read in public, but at least it doesn’t insult our intelligence and our grasp of elementary syntax..

[more crash blossoms]