Josh Fruhlinger sends along today's entry in the "crash blossom" sweepstakes, a headline from the BBC News website:
SNP signals debate legal threat
Crash blossoms (as we've discussed here and here) are infelicitously worded headlines that cause confusion due to a garden-path effect. Here we begin with SNP, which British readers at least will recognize as the abbreviation for the Scottish National Party. Then comes signals, which can be a plural noun or a singular present verb; following a noun, most readers would expect it to work as a verb. The third word, debate, can be a singular noun or a plural verb, and if you've parsed the first two words as Noun + Verb, then you'll be inclined to take debate as the direct object of the verb. So far, so good. But then comes legal threat. What to do now?
Well, you could go back to the beginning of the headline for a reparsing, now construing signals as a plural noun modified by SNP. That would allow you to continue on with debates as a plural verb and legal threat as the object of the verb. But what in the world are SNP signals and why are they debating a legal threat?
Turns out the first path was moving in the right direction. Signals is indeed the verb here, and the object of the verb is debate legal threat — one of those wonderfully opaque compound nouns that British headlines are prey to. You see, debate legal threat refers to threatened legal action that could be taken if the SNP isn't permitted to take part in televised debates before the next UK election. And the SNP is now signaling that it may follow through on this threat.
We've had fun with such outrageous compounding in previous posts (Geoff Pullum in "Noun noun noun noun noun verb," "Canoe wives and unnatural semantic relations," and "Dentist fear girl," and Mark Liberman in "UK death crash fetish?"). This one's a bit different in that the second element of the compound noun, legal threat, is a noun phrase consisting of an adjective modifying a noun. That makes debate legal threat unusually hard to parse.
Noun-Adjective-Noun compounds are possible in English, of course — think of such constructions as Minnesota Supreme Court, Obama White House, Guardian front page, or Microsoft legal team. In those cases, however, the Adjective-Noun component is a set phrase (Supreme Court, White House, front page, legal team), which makes the addition of a premodifying noun unproblematic. But legal threat is not such a set phrase, and debate is not an immediately obvious choice for an attributive noun ready for grafting (certainly not compared to the proper nouns in my examples: Minnesota, Obama, Guardian, Microsoft). So these factors, plus the ambiguous syntactic role of the preceding word, signals, conspire to make this crash blossom particularly crashy.