Moose retrieval headline

This initially puzzling headline from the Anchorage Daily News was passed on by Chris Waigl this morning:

Suspended road-kill moose retrieval renewed, expands

Screenshot in case the paper changes the story:

It took me several runs through to parse the thing, as it did Chris. First thing: the head has a subject NP —

suspended road-kill moose retrieval

and a coordinate VP, with the verbs renewed ‘is renewed, has been renewed’ and expands and no explicit conjunction. The subject can be parsed in a number of unsatisfactory ways, but the key to getting the intended reading is realizing that the story’s about road-kill moose, that is, moose that are road kill, that is, moose that have been killed on the road, that is, moose that have been killed in traffic accidents.

Then the issue is which of two parsings is the intended one:

[ suspended [ road-kill ] ] [ retrieval ]

OR [ suspended ] [ [ road-kill ] retrieval ]

The retrieval of suspended road-kill (that is, road-kill that’s been suspended, in some sense of suspend) or the suspended retrieval of road-kill? It’s hard to make any sense of the former, so the latter it is: the retrieval of road-kill was suspended. What could that mean? Presumably, that there was some kind of program to retrieve road-kill for some purpose; details in the article.

So the headline says that this program (once suspended) has been renewed and in fact expanded. Chris found renewed, expands awkward — renewed, expanded would have been more parallel — though headline coordinations of elliptical and full VPs are not uncommon, as in this example:

Tillinghast attacked, defends itself (link)

(Tillinghast is an actuarial practice specializing in risk management.)

My collection of potentially ambiguous headlines is nearing a hundred examples, and I don’t bother to record most of the ones that come past me. As writers on Language Log point out every so often, there are many contributing factors, in particular: the reductions in headlines, eliminating cues to structure; the choice of compact structures, like N + N compounds, in headlines; structural and lexical ambiguities to be found in the language outside of headlines (for instance, ambiguities in assigning words to syntactic categories); and the absence of context and background information when headlines are viewed on their own.

Here’s an example from Robert Coren last week, from the Boston Globe:

Cleanup of the Blackstone stalls in a legal quagmire

What are Blackstone stalls?

No, stalls is a verb, not a noun. The cleanup of something called the Blackstone has been stalled. This turns out to be the Blackstone River (not, say, the Blackstone Hotel somewhere).

The cases mount up, though few are as compacted as the road-kill moose headline.

One Response to “Moose retrieval headline”

  1. James C. Says:

    Being from Anchorage, the headline was immediately obvious to me. The most important part of the parse is this: [[road-kill moose] retrieval]. For me, context served to immediately identify [road-kill moose] as an important constituent because it’s a perennial news topic in the region, and ‘retrieval’ followed immediately from knowing about the meat-recovery program. I didn’t know that it was suspended, but the next step was getting [suspended [[road-kill moose] retrieval]] which wasn’t hard. Even if I parsed [[[road-kill moose] retrieval] renewed], the ‘suspended’ could be inferred so that I guess it could be left to semantic interpretation without solid syntactic structure, hence no reparse would be needed. Because this is a fairly familiar program to residents of the area, I think the headline writer probably never even considered that there could be confusion with that part, and nobody else in the ADN office would have either.

    The ‘, expands’ bit is weird to me, but as you note this is probably because of the two different tenses.

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