Only just to realise the ambiguity

September 1, 2015

I got an email recently from file-hosting service Dropbox, telling me about the apps they have for different devices. This is the first of two sentences in the main body of the email; see how it sounds to you before reading on:

Have you ever wanted to show off some photos, or pull up a doc from work, just to realize you left them on your computer at home?

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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.]

Update:

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.


Rumble Tumble stumble

November 23, 2011

This guy Leonard knew sold cold guns was named Haskel Ward.

Did this line wrongfoot you? More than once?

It’s a great example of a garden path sentence, and one with multiple paths. It appears at the beginning of chapter 7 in Joe R. Lansdale’s novel Rumble Tumble, which I’m reading at the moment.

It boils down to “This guy was named X.” Inserting a relative pronoun or two —

This guy [who] Leonard knew [who] sold cold guns was named Haskel Ward.

— clarifies the syntax, but robs the line of its charm and of the narrator’s distinctive voice.

Grammatically what this is is a subject contact clause. As my shows shows, these are quite common in Irish English and also some US dialects.

Dinosaur Comics, 25 November 2003

(If you’re a regular visitor here, you might remember seeing Rumble Tumble in this bookmash, where I found another use for its rhyming reduplication.)