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.]

Update:

Fev at headsup suggests a simple change that would avoid the crash blossom: “Girl found alive in France murder car”.