The latest word soup from the Bloomberg headline crew

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Bloomberg News headlines, as we've observed in the past, often sound like they've been written by someone with a bizarre journalistic strain of aphasia. Consider, as representative samples, "Ebola Fear Stalks Home Hunt for Quarantined Now Released" and "Madonna Addicted to Sweat Dance Plugs Toronto Condos: Mortgages." The latest specimen is especially inscrutable:

As usual, the reader is compelled to read the first couple of paragraphs before the headline begins to make a lick of sense.

Patent ‘Death Squad’ Rules Owners Denounce Upheld by U.S. Court

(Bloomberg) — A U.S. appeals court upheld rules that make it easier for companies like Google Inc. and Apple Inc. to get rid of worrisome patent litigation on the cheap.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in an appeal involving a patent for a speed limit indicator, took its first look at reviews by the Patent and Trademark Office. The decision Wednesday may benefit many companies not directly in the case by upholding rules that patent owners say make it too easy to get their legal protections tossed and led a former judge to dub the agency board a “death squad” for patents.

So the head noun of the headline's subject is "rules," referring to rules that have been set up by the Patent and Trademark Appeals Board. Those rules have led a former judge to dub the board a "death squad," thus making it possible for Bloomberg to call them "patent 'death squad' rules." (I like the interposition of "death squad" between "patent" and "rules," which reminds me of interposed nicknames like Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini.) Furthermore, those rules are ones that patent owners denounce. And finally, assuming you've gotten that far, the headline's predicate tells us that those rules have been upheld by a U.S. court.

I consider myself pretty adept at parsing Bloombergese, but I got nowhere with this one, as I kept wanting to read "rules" as a verb and then got tripped up by the juxtaposition of "denounce" and "upheld." I really have to wonder if Bloomberg's in-house style guide contains explicit instructions on how to stymie the reader. Since the headlines kill any hopes of understanding them, perhaps they operate under "Bloomberg 'Death Squad' Rules."

(H/t Charles Duan.)


  1. BZ said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 3:54 pm

    Interesting, I settled on a reading very close to the intended meaning after 2 readings or so. I identified rules as the subject. After that, oddly, it's the word "patent" that kept tripping me up as I kept thinking that it modified "death squad". Like "patently false", I thought that the rules were patently death squad rules, which doesn't sound right, but fits with owners (of what?) denouncing them.

  2. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

    It's almost possible to make sense of it by reading "denounce" as headlinese for "denunciation". The owners denounced something (it's not clear what), the court upheld that denunciation, and then the patent "death squad" issued a ruling on the court's opinion.

  3. AB said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 4:24 pm

    I nearly gave up on this one. It's such a bugger to parse because it doesn't even follow my internalised rules of headlinese.

    I assumed the last noun in the pile-up must be the head noun – the owners of the patent rules are clearly denouncing someone. No that doesn't work…

    So maybe rules is a verb? No, not helpful.

    What if patent is a verb, a quoted imperative: the owners are calling for the death-squad rules to be patented… None of this helps.

    At last, in desperation, I decided Denounce™ must be the name of a corporation, and there is an implied semicolon before "upheld".


    A patent death-squad [i.e. some industry body, presumably overseen by a Patent Czar] has ruled that Denounce are the are rightful owners [of some patent] and this ruling has been upheld by a US court!

    Piece of cake.

  4. Nathan said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 4:36 pm

    I got it on the second reading. The first was just word salad.

  5. Yuval said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 4:50 pm

    I got it right away, but was primed due to the fact that it appears here… so first I hunted for the verb, and since the clearest one is "upheld", the rest follows.

  6. Craig said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

    "Patent 'Death Squad' Rules Upheld by U.S. Court" would have given me no trouble, but figuring out how "Owners Denounce" fit in was beyond me until I read the two paragraphs quoted from the article. Then I realized that the headline meant "… Rules Denounced by Owners…" or "… Rules That Owners Have Denounced…". In their rush to cram the headline into as few words as possible and minimize prepositions, the headline writer managed (again) to create something nearly unparseable.

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 5:36 pm

    My first instinct was the same as that of Gregory Kusnick, to read 'Denounce' as a noun, but I read the rest differently: the denunciation (of something) by the owners of the patent 'death squad' rules has been upheld by a US court. (Can you own rules? Why not? I'm sure someone owns the rules of football, etc.)

  8. Rubrick said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

    I get the feeling that they may have first had "Patent ‘Death Squad’ Rules Denounced by Owners Upheld by U.S. Court", disliked the double "by" (or were over a prescribed word limit) and then disastrously tried to fix it.

    I think the real solution is to front the Court: "U.S. Court Upholds Patent 'Death Squad' Rules Denounced by Owners" is perfectly intelligible.

  9. Vance Koven said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

    Being a lawyer, I got it immediately. Put an assumed "that" in front of "owners" and all will become clear at once.

  10. Q. Q. Switcheroo said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 9:30 pm

    So, essentially: "Buffalo 'Buffalo buffalo' buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffaloed by Buffalo buffalo"?

  11. Duncan said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 10:48 pm

    Unlike the two samples in the intro paragraph (I've still no idea on the Ebola one, but think I got the Madonna one on about the fifth pass, tho I'm not sufficiently interested to click thru and verify), I got this one on second pass.

    But that's likely evidence of what sort of stories I'm interested in. As a FLOSS (free/libre and open source software) user and advocate (but unlike Vance K, NOT a lawyer), I spend a not insignificant amount of time following software patent news as part of general FLOSS legal climate coverage, and thus have a reasonable idea of the background. The general argument is between those who emphasize the original reason for patents, to promote the advancement of the sciences, etc, who thus hold that where advancement is actually being held back by patents as they believe to be the case with software patents, patents should not exist, and those who emphasize the "intellectual property" aspect of patents, and believe depriving them of that "property" without payment is an injustice.

    As it so happens, much of the world including the European Economic Community doesn't allow software patents as such, while the US has for many years. Recently, however, the balance tipped a bit when the Supreme Court ruled that just because a would-be patent describing an otherwise common and thus patent-ineligible practice describes doing it on a computer, with the computer element being the only or primary new bit, doesn't in itself make it patent-eligible. There must be some other element of novelty.

    This would seem to be simply more fallout from that decision as various software patents continue to fall both thru patent office reviews and court cases as a result. Coming from the side which argues that there's plenty of evidence that software advances extremely fast even without patent coverage, and that indeed, software patents generally only serve to slow software advancement down and make it multiple times more expensive, as I do, Bloomberg's evident pro-patent-property position, calling these "Death Squad" rules, seems rather extreme, but it does provide a useful glimpse into the thinking of the other side, that I'm not normally exposed to in my customary web wanderings.

    Anyway, with the priming of seeing the headline on LL, my approach after the word salad of the first read was to mentally add breakup-commas and words where necessary, and guided by the above background, I quickly came to a reading that both made sense and agreed with what I knew of the background, such that a second complete read actually made sense:

    Patent 'Death Squad' Rules (that) Owners Denounce, Upheld by U.S. Court

    Sure enough. =:^)

    But I'll definitely agree with Rubrick, fronting "US court upholds" yields /far/ more clarity and sanity, and doing so lead me to the exact same solution he had:

    US Court Upholds Patent 'Death Squad' Rules Denounced by Owners

    But of course that would break the headline rule of important things first, the important thing being what changed, the Patent 'Death Squad' Rules, so we get word salad! Amusing tho it may be, it's unfortunate for those poor readers (except perhaps for those in legal services) trying to make sense of the thing.

  12. Jason said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 11:18 pm

    One little relativiser and the headline parses properly. They couldn't spare a measly little "that"?

  13. Chris McG said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 3:23 am

    Even knowing the intended meaning and correct reading, I still find this headline very tricky to…read. It's the "owners denounce upheld" bit that's getting me every time, my mind takes real effort to intonate that correctly. It's as if they've just taken a sentence and removed all the "little" words and expect that to be comprehensible. "(The) patent 'Death Squad' rules (that) owners denounce (are) upheld by US court." – it's like when I listen to French, when because of the synonyms with English and Spanish, I know all(/most) of the nouns and verbs, but have no idea what they're doing in relation to each other.

    A British headline-ese "Owner-denounced patent 'Death Squad' rules upheld by US court" would definitely be preferable for me in this case.

  14. Riikka said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 4:04 am

    The other two examples confuse me a lot, but though I kept wanting to read in homeowners (what else?) denouncing death squads (maybe Boko Haram, Daesh, the neighborhood's gun clubs or the local police shooting unarmed blacks) and their rule, I got the grammar part right. I might've understood the Ebola one after writing it down and treating it as a puzzle, but my first readings involved Ebola's fear stalks (probably like eye stalks, just more scary) and someone called Home who had hunted for people in quarantines. Madonna's adsictive sweat dance plugs and their effect on mortgages still escape me. Could 'condos' be slang for 'condemns'..?

  15. Rodger C said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 7:59 am

    I got it after a moment of blinking, but then I too have some knowledge of the topic. Do I win a sweat dance plug?

  16. Craig said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 8:21 am

    And without my glasses I read "patent" as "patient" which I have to think was intentional.

  17. David said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    The Bloomberg Way: A Guide for Reporters and Editors

    Also, a seminar from the head of Bloomberg Labs that highlights exactly these kinds of issues…

  18. Bruce said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    I think that writing it as 'owners denounced' would have helped me parse this one. Maybe it's just me.

  19. blahedo said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

    It really seems like reduced relative clauses (hence with no explicit complementiser) with bare-plural-noun subjects (hence not requiring a separate determinative) are an exceptionally fruitful ground for the gardenpathiest of headlinese garden paths.

  20. Steve said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

    Patent "Death Squad" Rules Row Owner U.S. Court Loss.

    Is it just me, or is that actually easier to follow than the original?

  21. Jonathon Owen said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 1:16 pm

    Even with the "that" inserted, I'm still having a hard time with it. Is "denounce" a noun in Bloombergese?

  22. Steve said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 11:03 pm

    @Jonathon Owens: I think "denounce" is still a verb in the assumed "that" reading. Perhaps it is headlinese present tense (Patent "Death Squad" Rules [That] Owners Denounce[d] Upheld By U.S. Court". And since I assume the patent owners still denounce the rules, regardless of what some court may have held, it seems a reasonable use of the present tense.

    I suspect, though maybe I am being unwarrantedly cynical, that the headline intentionally fronted "Patent 'Death Squad' Rules" to make the focus of the headline the fact that the patent rules are widely denounced by owners as death squad rules. Emphasizing that a court upheld the rules would undermine that narrative. But I don't know if it is a case of Bloomberg being anti-patent reform, or if the idea was simply that "death squad" is a way more exciting focus than "some rules were upheld by some court". Of course, the notions are not mutually exclusive.

  23. Jonathon Owen said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 1:42 pm

    @Steve: Thanks. After a little bit more puzzling, I finally came up with the same answer: "[The] Patent 'Death Squad' Rules [That] Owners Denounce [Are] Upheld by U.S. Court".

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