BBC signals crash blossom threat

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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.


  1. Peter Harvey said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    Also from the BBC I offer:

    Men wanted to test contraceptive

    Screenshot on

  2. Oskar said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    Even with your explanation, it took me a solid sixty seconds to parse the sentance correctly. I couldn't stop seeing debate as a plural verb with SNP signals as the subject. When I first read it, it was the only thing that made sense (I assumed signal was some obscure title in British politics, so you could go up to people and say "Hello, I'm the SNP signal for this polling station", or something).

    I understand that headline writers have constraints on them when it comes to space and such, but you'd think that you've failed at your job when it is extremely difficult for any speaker of English to parse your language. I mean, they're not going to stick around to try and figure what the heck it means, they're going to move on to the next article.

  3. Eli Morris-Heft said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    Does anyone else find this much easier to parse as "SNP signals legal debate threat"? I wonder if there's UK/US difference here – maybe that's a question to take over to Lynnequist's excellent blog – or if this headline is equally opaque on both sides of the pond.

  4. Faldone said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    "SNP signals legal debate threat"

    For one thing, by the time we get to this we've pretty much understood what the headline is trying to say and for another "legal" doesn't work as a plural verb so we don't really have a serious contender for a syntactic structure to misfit it in.

    I'm a Leftpondian.

  5. peter said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    "but you'd think that you've failed at your job when it is extremely difficult for any speaker of English to parse your language."

    Ah, but the primary objective of the headline is not to communicate anything itself, and certainly not to summarize the story. Its primary objective is to persuade you to read the article beneath it (or to buy the newspaper, in the case of tabloid headlines), and this headline is very successful at that!

  6. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    "But legal threat is not such a set phrase, and debate is not an immediately obvious choice for an attributive noun ready for grafting"

    I beg to differ: "legal threat" is, if not a set phrase, at the very least a strong cooccurrence. The problem truly resides in "debate" (indeed replacing it with a proper noun such as "Blair" mostly kills the garden path) and the odd choice of "signals" over a clearer construction using a verb like "make", "issue" or "warn", all of which are somewhat clearer (and while "issues" does not remove the ambiguity, it is nonetheless MUCH easier to resolve once you reach the end of the sentence).

  7. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    I guess I'm sufficiently accustomed to parsing British noun-pileup heds now that I had trouble seeing any plausible parse other than the intended one.

  8. Rijk said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    Compounds are written together in languages like Dutch and German. So "debate legal threat" might become one word, easing the parsing of the sentence if not of the compound). They call it 'the English disease' when people start writing compounds as separate words :) And then there's a whole set of rules on how to spell Dutch compounds composed of imported English words and compounds…

  9. jfruh said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    One of the problems I have is that "signals" and "threat" sort of indicate the same thing, as near as I can tell. I mean, is the SNP really *signaling* that it might *threaten* to take legal action? As I read the story, the SNP is signaling that it might sue — which is, in the sense that the headline means it, in and of itself a "legal threat."

  10. Terry Hunt said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    Ha! It happens that this very headline snagged my eye about an hour before coming over to Language Log, and I spent about half a minute unsuccessfully trying to interpret it before throwing in the towel (well, it's late) and clicking through to read the story so as to find out what it was really about. (As I'd suspected, the actual story held no interest for me whatever, even though I'm a former Scottish and current English resident.) I'd been thinking of submitting it to LL, only to find you're already on the case.

    An aspect of this 'Headlinese' intrigues me. I presume it mostly stems from a need to save valuable space in the limited compass of a paper page – so why does it persist in the effectively limitless medium of website 'pages' that are invariably so long as to require scrolling anyway? Sheer habit on the part of ex-print journalists?

  11. Lazar said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

    I don't think there's any headline that can beat "Excrement curry wife admonished".

  12. fiddler said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 1:01 am

    I still don't know what it means.

  13. Andrew said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:14 am

    I think you've got to allow sonething for context here. As a UK resident who has been aware of the proposed debate (and of course who knows who the SNP are) the headline wasn't problematic at all.

  14. Vireya said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 3:19 am

    Maybe there is a UK/US difference at work here, because I didn't experience a garden path effect at all. As I'm from the antipodes rather than Britain, I didn't know what the SNP was, but I knew they were threatening legal action about a debate.

  15. J.J.E. said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 3:20 am

    As a geneticist, I was particularly confused when first reading the headline. For me, "SNP" automatically suggests Single Nucleotide Polymorphism. And I had no idea how a DNA base could signal anything vis a vis a "debate" or a "legal threat" or how signals from a SNP could debate anything at all. I was already overwhelmed by the time I started reading in earnest so I just stopped guessing and read the whole thing, spoilers and all.

  16. Rubrick said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 6:05 am

    I can't wait until the day these posts have become newsworthy themselves, and we get to see the headline "Crash Blossoms Discussion Flowers".

  17. Ian Preston said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 6:51 am

    From the front page of today's online version of The Times:

    Revenue confiscation targets ‘skew justice’.

    In the intended meaning "targets" is a noun and "skew" is a verb. The article itself makes clear that some people are arguing that the confiscation policies of UK tax authorities distort justice. It seems to me though that you could just as easily read "targets" as a verb and "skew" as an adjective to arrive at a quite different understanding, as if the tax authorities were making confiscations with the intention of correcting distorted justice.

    On the SNP headline, count me as another UK reader who had no trouble understanding it.

  18. Nick Z said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 8:28 am

    I parsed this as a legal threat about a signals debate (whatever a signals debate might be; I don't follow Scottish politics very closely), and that still seems to me the natural reading.

    @Eli Morris-Heft: in "SNP signals legal debate threat" I would have to take "legal" as modifying "debate", whereas of course it has to modify "threat". Whether the debate is legal is not in question (although the fact that it will be a complete disaster for the prime minister is obviously why all the opposition parties want one).

  19. greg said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 8:46 am

    I tossed this link in as comment on the previous crash blossoms thread a few days after the fact, so I'll just go ahead and renominate Dead babies found in Berlin flat. Obviously, not so much of a sentence that makes you pause if you're familiar with the British flat = American apartment, but woe to the person who happens upon the article and wonders how exactly it was that the babies were flattened.

  20. Bryn LaFollette said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    "Aging Research Wins Americans Nobel In Medicine"

    This was an NPR headline online today. I thought "Crash Blossom" as soon as I had found myself thinking "Just how old was this research?"

  21. Kevin said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    "Legal threat" is a set phrase for me. Not as frequent a phrase as "supreme court" or "front page" are, but nonetheless set. My unqualified guess is that the headline-writing editor shares that set-ness, and they didn't account for the readers (like Oskar above) who don't share the phrase. I still didn't immediately understand the headline, but once I got the information that SNP is a political party and there's a to-do about debates, the headline worked perfectly well for me.

    Eli Morris-Heft's suggestion of "SNP signals legal debate threat" works far less well for me (and I'm pretty American) — a "debate threat" sounds as meaningless to me as a "legal threat" apparently seems to the rest of the participants in this discussion.

  22. stripey_cat said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    Maybe it's because I'm a barracks brat, but my first thought was that it was something to do with signals specialists in the military, and that there was some bizarre legal problem with SNP membership or something. The actual debate in the news at the moment was several seconds behind some conspiracy theory of political repression in the armed forces!

  23. Chris said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    From E-Commerce News:

    "Making the Cloud Rain Business Productivity"

  24. army1987 said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    From the abstract of a 1966 article by Akira Kasahara on the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences: “Westerly flows past the obstacle produced a train of long waves”.


    I started out by assuming "westerly" to be an adjective, but then "flows past" looked so much like verb+preposition, and I happened to glance the plural "westerlies" below in the page. When I got to the "a" I strongly suspected that there had to be a missing "by" before it which was accidentally left out, just to discover that the sentence wouldn't make physically sense that way (though it did grammatically). I had to re-read the sentence five times before realizing that my initial assumption that "westerly" was an adjective was correct.

  25. Stephen said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    USA Today had a front-page story this morning entitled "Heating Aid Needs Outstrip Funding", a triumph of garden-pathology. Someone obviously picked up on the problem and reworded it to "Heating aid could fall short of needs", but a syndicated version in the Jacksonville Observer (currently) still has the original headline.

  26. dw said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 2:30 am


    How about Man's hot water bottle nose blow bid", currently at

    Here's the full story, which is even funnier than the headline.

  27. Nik Berry said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    I agree with those who see a US/UK difference. I'm British, and it made perfect sense to me.

  28. Picky said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:38 am

    I'm British, and a former newspaper headline writer, and a former revise sub, and it didn't make perfect sense to me, and I'd have spiked this ghastly headline.

  29. Steve F said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    I'm one more British reader who had no trouble making sense of it, though I wasn't aware which particular debate was being referred to. I immediately knew what 'Man's hot water bottle nose blow bid' meant as well. In fact the only headline quoted in the comments which isn't instantly clear to me is 'Making the cloud rain business productivity' – I assume 'rain' is a verb, but I'm not entirely sure what the 'cloud' is. My best guess is that it means 'Ways of making the current difficult economic conditions increase the productivity of your business'. But it's the metaphor, not the compound noun which causes the problem in that one. I suspect British readers are simply more used to the compound noun pile-ups in headlinese, and so have less trouble parsing them.

  30. Heidi Harley said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

    Hey Ben et al —

    I had another possible parse on my first trip through, in which 'legal threat' was a predicate, not part of a bigger compound — i.e. I read it as

    "SNP signals [that] [the] debate [is] [a] legal threat".

    But reading the story I see that that's not a reasonable construal. Ah well. But I've seen such headlines in the past; all piles of headline nouns may not be compound piles, necessarily. Some can be subject/predicate piles.

  31. dan said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 1:19 am

    I know it's not quite the same as some of those above, but isn't this one from the BBC News website a little bit disturbing?

    Golfer hit by ball on head dies

    I have unpleasant visions of golf balls attached to heads, flying around in a very dangerous manner.

  32. Deja said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

    I don't think anyone has yet mentioned SEO – search engine optimisation. I work as a sub-editor on the website of a British newspaper, and we're supposed to ensure that headlines (as well as picture captions and links) contain as many searchable terms as possible so that the story will come near the top of the list when someone searches for the topic on Google. I think that can tend to make headlines on sites such as BBC News read more like link text – the headline writers have to cram all those searchable terms into limited space on the front page of the news section in question. The important thing in this case would have been using SNP as the first word, then "debate" and "legal threat" – which, as other commenters have noted, are not so difficult to understand when you know the context.

  33. army1987 said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    Huh? I cannot possibly imagine for "Golfer hit by ball on head dies" any other meaning than the intended one, unless I pretend to believe that there is such a thing as a "head die", whatever that might be.

  34. nbm said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    Ooh, here's one that truly led me astray: "Baucus Suggested Girlfriend for U.S. Attorney." In the New York Times, December 5.
    Obviously I have no limit on the bad behavior I'll attribute to a US senator.

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