Archive for the ‘Headline trouble’ Category

Ambiguity for leeches

April 15, 2014

Posted by Neil Copeland on Facebook and passed on by Mar Rojo, this article from the New Zealand Press, by Rachel Young, with the headline:

Is this NZ’s creepiest crawly?

and the subhead:

Rare land leeches have been found on several offshore islands, one of which is now headed to Te Papa [the museum in Wellington]

The ambiguity of the subhead elicited some discussion:  is it a land leech or an offshore island that’s headed to Te Papa? (Details below.)

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Grotesque crash blossom

October 31, 2013

From Chris Waigl, this headline from a story in the Fairbanks (AK) Daily News – Miner of 10/30/13:

Man who bought pets later found roasted, eaten in Denali Park still unknown

The bold-faced PSP phrase can be understood in either of two ways:

(1) as a reduced VP with subject man who bought pets, with the copular verb was omitted, as is common for copular verbs in the headline register; or

(2) as a postmodifier (a “reduced relative clause”) for pets — so ‘pets who were later found roasted, eaten in Denali Park’.

If you start parsing the sentence as in (1), then you’re brought up short at the end of the bold-faced phrase; you’ve been led down the garden path. Then you have to go back and re-parse, to be about to incorporate the still unknown (now as a VP with omitted copular verb) into the interpretation. In the body of the story:

Whoever bought pets at a Fairbanks pet store and then apparently roasted and consumed them just inside Denali National Park has not been identified.

According to Chris,

There’s some debate in the comments of our local paper regarding whether this headline is misleading.

Chris speculates that different people have different favored parsing strategies — producing the debate over whether the headline is misleading.

The power of collocation

February 7, 2012

I know, I said I was trying not to post any more crash blossom headlines, but this one, from the NPR site today, has an interesting feature:

Chinese Labor Practices Sour Apple Consumers (link)

It’s the sour apple piece that causes the problem; otherwise, the headline would be unremarkable.

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Unfortunate P-drop

April 9, 2011

From the “Sic!” section of World Wide Words #731 (5/9/11):

Aoife Bairead saw a headline in the Sunday Business Post of Ireland dated 3 April: “Bishops agree sex abuse rules”.

The crucial bit of syntax — “transitivizing P-drop” (see here) for ‘agree on/to’ — is widespread in British and Irish English, but it can result in risible ambiguities, specifically when what follows agree can be understood as an object clause, as it can here, thanks to the existence of both a noun rule (what was intended in the headline) and a verb rule and to the existence of both a transitive and an intransitive verb rule. All these factors combine to yield a possible, but unwanted, interpretation ‘agree that sex abuse rules’: a fine crash blossom (see here).

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Another headline posting

May 12, 2009

This is a subtle one. The headline (New Scientist, 2 May, p. 11):

Gene discovery
may be common
cause of autism

My first reading of the compound noun gene discovery is that discovery is an abstract noun, referring to an event (in which some gene, or possibly genes, is discovered, though in other cases N + discovery could refer to an event of discovered by N(s), as in a University of Chicago discovery; there are both “object” and “subject” readings of compounds with abstract nominal heads).

But it’s ridiculous to asset that an even of discovery is the cause of any condition. Something like “The discovery of genes at the University of Chicago may be a common cause of autism” is, at least at first, puzzling. (Ok, here’s a science-fiction scenario to write about.) Instead, N + discovery is intended to refer to the thing discovered about (in this case), or by (in other cases) N. This reading is available in the New Scientist headline, but it takes a little work to get to it.

You see the headline writer’s dilemma. The writer was given a very small space to produce a head, and the obvious “Recently/Newly discovered gene may be common cause of autism” won’t fit. “Newly found gene” might have fit, but give the headline writer a break.

Another imparseable dream

May 8, 2009

The headlines roll on. Here’s another, from John Baker on ADS-L, 5/7/09, who found it in a mutual fund industry trade publication:  

Asset Drops Fuel Expense Ratio Rise

Baker explained:

Its meaning?  Decreases in the assets under management in mutual funds (mainly because of declining prices in the stock market) have caused the funds’ expense ratios to increase.

noting that the headline is so hard to parse because four of its six words (everything except asset and ratio) can function as either nouns or verbs.


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