An ursine crash blossom

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Via Wonkette and The Raw Story comes this shocking political headline from the Reuters newswire:

One can only imagine what Stephen Colbert will have to say about this.

We've been down this road before with Reuters: see Arnold Zwicky's 2007 post "From the headline desk at Language Log Plaza" and my followup, "Reuters says guilty of elliptical headlines." As we've documented, it's long been the peculiar Reuters house style to create headlines of the form "X say(s) C," where C is a complement clause missing a subject. This time around, the elision of the pronoun it results in crash blossom-y goodness, since the casual reader would assume that the subject of "Bears Part Of Blame For Senate Loss" is actually bears, construed as a plural noun, with the rest of the clause serving as predicate (and with the copula are deleted in typical headline style).

This goes to show just how engrained the "X say(s) C" formula is at the Reuters copy desk, if they can rattle off a headline like this without stopping to consider how it would read to anyone not steeped in Reuters-ese.

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50 Comments »

  1. linda seebach said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    Here's a pretty good crash blossom:

    NYT's Wayne named Reynolds visiting biz prof at ASU

    http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45&aid=176120

  2. Valentine said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

    Ahhhh, so it's NOT the Chicago Bears?!

  3. Dan E Bloom said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

    Reuters is BRitish by birth, is that why they do those kinds of heds?

  4. Dan E Bloom said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

    Also, Ben, as an aside, you know, i used to work as a copyeditor at a few newspapers in my day, the Daily Yomiuri in Japan where my desk-mate was Alex Klein who went on to the Wash Post and aol stories, his mom is Japanese, that's why he was in Japan that summer of 1992, and I was there because of Nobuko Watanabe, sigh, l'amour fou, and also at the Taipei Times in a country that nobody recognizes as a country called Taiwan, and you know, not me, Ben, but some copyeditors are drunk lushes, alchoholics in fact, and they come to work hungover, esp on night shifts and they love to write weird and wired and crazy headlines just to be funny and pull their weight in the newsroon, and sometimes as a eff you to the reader. bear that in mind when you read some crash blossoms next time. some of them are done on purpose. i know i shouldna tell tales out of school but that is truth

  5. Lane said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 12:10 am

    And given how short "it" is. "White House says it bears blame" is so much easier to parse on first reading that you really have to be cramped for space to eliminate two (skinny little) letters that help so much.

  6. fev said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 12:36 am

    ///and you know, not me, Ben, but some copyeditors are drunk lushes, alchoholics in fact, and they come to work hungover, esp on night shifts and they love to write weird and wired and crazy headlines just to be funny and pull their weight in the newsroon, and sometimes as a eff you to the reader./// Ahem. Nice as it is to catch a hint of Lardner in the air, I think the technical journalistic term for this generalization is "bullshit."

  7. Russell said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 3:32 am

    Huh, I had noticed this (or rather, a variant) a few years ago, though at the time I didn't attribute it to a particular outfit's style.

  8. Eli said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 3:57 am

    As much as I might try, I cannot make this headline grammatical, even with allowances for headlinese. "Reuters says guilty of elliptical headlines" works much better (though it's questionable-marginal).

    I think that, in "X says C", if C is a VP, it's much harder to accept these sentences:
    (1) White House Says Bears Part Of Blame For Senate Loss
    (2) Reuters Says Is Guilty Of Elliptical Headlines
    (3) Company Confirms Drills Illegally For Oil

    All of these strike me as pretty bad. If the V in that VP is actually the copula, we get an alternate form of X says C of D:
    (2') Reuters Says Guilty Of Elliptical Headlines

    I don't think either of them is better, but that's native speakers for you.

  9. Sili said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 4:18 am

    Knowing I was supposed to look for a reïnterpretation, I tried "White House, says Bears, Part Of Blame For Senate Loss" at first, attributing the statement to someone named Bears. But of course that doesn't work.

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 5:05 am

    I enjoyed Dan's prose poem.

    What would have been wrong with "Accepts" in place of "Says Bears"? It makes me lean toward Dan's interpretation. But, anyway, how can bears be part of something as abstract as blame? The garden path is pretty short.

    Standards started falling about when they began capitalizing the prepositions.

  11. Robyn said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 6:16 am

    It's a sign of the times… a few years ago, all those hairy gay men would have voted Democrat.

  12. Rubrick said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 6:32 am

    Looks like Colbert was right all along.

  13. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 7:22 am

    Mark: "We've been down this road before"

    Garden path, surely?

    Dan Bloom: This particular kind of pronoun removal following 'says' is characteristically a Reuters-ism; I've never noticed it in any other British headlines (although I won't claim it's never happened, of course).

  14. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    Damn Obama, you're from Chicago. Can't you cut the Bears some slack?

  15. Kylopod said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    Bear with me, it's time for me to feed it.

  16. Stan Carey said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    It's quite an oversight. I was imagining all sorts of bear-related situations that might explain the headline, and was a little disappointed when the ellipsis occurred to me.

    Book 'em, Lou. *points to the bear* [/Wiggum]

  17. dwmacg said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    "Ahhhh, so it's NOT the Chicago Bears?!"

    I was thinking the Boston Bruins.

  18. JohnMcF said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    Being primed to ignore the animal goodness, I immediately parsed it as:
    White House says (that) Bear( Stearn )s is part of …

  19. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    Under Reuters syntactic rules, this would be grammatical and true (and an even funnier crash blossom):

    White House Says Bears Responsible for Senate Loss

    That's because you can always omit the copular verb (here, are) in newspaper headlinese.

  20. Kylopod said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    "White House Admits Part of Blame for Senate Loss" would have been clearer with fewer letters.

  21. wally said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    Uh, my first thought, before I got to the second part of the headline, was of Bear Stearns.

  22. notrequired said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    Damn. I always suspected Yogi Bear had a political agenda.

  23. rpsms said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    This whole thread is ursinine

  24. JimG said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    I guess the bears ate their homework. Copy editors? Sloppy editors! Compare the length of the fragments:

    Says Bears Part of Blame
    Accepts Some Blame

  25. Lazar said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I agree with Eli – I have no problem with reasonable uses of headlinese, but this still strikes me as ungrammatical (and indecipherable).

  26. Nick said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    Presumably brown bears.

  27. Paul said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    Agree with Eli as well. I had to read the article to even understand what was intended.

    Knowing it couldn't be about animals, I thought it was somehow about bears in the stock-market sense.

  28. richard said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    Coincidentally, one of the local papers here had this headline yesterday:

    "Woman charged with killing baby again found incompetent for trial"

    I couldn't help laughing, which I will pay for in the next life. Again.

  29. Mark J. Reed said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    My thought, too, Robyn, except it's not that the bears voted Republican. It was the hordes of out-of-town bears flocking(*) to MA to get married. Freaked the local mundanes out so much it scared them into voting Republican!

    (*) Can a horde flock? Can a flock horde?

  30. Michael Straight said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    "White House Admits Part of Blame for Senate Loss" would have been clearer with fewer letters.

    But in that version, the newspaper seems to be reporting that it's a fact that the White House bears some of the blame, a fact which the White House is admitting to, when the actual story is that the White House is expressing an (unprovable) opinion about the blame.

  31. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    I tried valiantly to avoid my usual puerile comment until I read rpsms. I think I'm in love.

  32. John S. Wilkins said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

    Ever since you Americans decided you'all had the right to arm bears, it's been nothing but trouble…

  33. Kylopod said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    @Michael Straight

    Okay, change "admits" to "accepts."

  34. Terry Collmann said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 4:01 am

    @John S. Wilkins: "The right to bare arms", surely?

  35. Plegmund said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 6:46 am

    British Press: use colon, not 'says'.

  36. Adrian said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    The British press often use the non-quote quotes (discussed in a recent LL thread) in these situations, but never this "says" monstrosity.

  37. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    January 23, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    GKP claims that "White House Says Bears Responsible for Senate Loss" is both headline-grammatical and true, but it seems to me the true statement would have to be written "White House Says Bears Responsibility for Senate Loss", which unfortunately destroys the joke.

  38. Graeme said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 9:57 am

    It took me minutes to understand the problem.

    The headline read clearly to me as pinning blame on bears (stockmarket sense).

  39. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

    I'm feeling confused here. The intended reading – which is indeed hard to decipher – is 'White House Says [that it] Bears Part Of [the] Blame'. The alternative reading that some people seem to have discovered is 'White House Says [that] Bears [are] Part Of [the] Blame.' But can bears be part of the blame? If they can, it's an idiom I'm not familiar with.

    [(myl) I agree that the construction seems a little off. But it's still a very common one:

    Teachers are part of the blame, just like everyone else in the system.
    Yeah, our government is a mess and the Democrats are part of the blame.
    Yes you are part of the blame.
    "We toxicologists are part of the blame," he said.
    Hedge Funds are part of the blame.

    And so on.]

  40. Amy Stoller said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    I went straight to Wall Street bears, vs Wall Street bulls – then wondered about cap B in Bears, which sent me to Chicago. Then gave up.

    @ rpsms: Thank you for ursinine.

  41. Jen said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    "Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    Under Reuters syntactic rules, this would be grammatical and true (and an even funnier crash blossom):

    White House Says Bears Responsible for Senate Loss"

    ———

    This doesn't make sense:

    "White House Says (It) Bears Responsible for Senate Loss"

    Replace "responsible" with "responsibility" and then it makes sense.

  42. Jen said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    "Kylopod said,

    "White House Admits Part of Blame for Senate Loss" would have been clearer with fewer letters."

    —————

    even better:

    "White House Bears Part of Blame for Senate Loss"

  43. Kylopod said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    "White House Bears Part of Blame for Senate Loss"

    What are bears doing in the White House?

  44. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    But Reuters cannot say "White House Bears Part of Blame for Senate Loss" since it would be advancing its own opinion rather than quoting the White House. "Says" is critical here for integrity. Reuters' idiosyncratic convention of eliding a repeated subject makes the sentence goofy and hard to read even when not a crash blossom.

  45. Kylopod said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    But that's why I said before they could have avoided the problem through better word choice. "White House Accepts Part of Blame for Senate Loss" would clearly describe the WH's position while maintaining a neutral stance on whether the position is accurate. The verb "accept" doesn't have the same problems as verbs like "admit" or "bear" or "take." Acceptance simply refers to a person's choice. A person who accepts blame may be either guilty or innocent.

    The verb "admit" has strong connotations of making a correct confession, as opposed to simply claiming responsibility. I toyed with this verb earlier, but others pointed out it was inadequate.

    "Bear" is clearly inadequate because it suggests an objective description of what someone possesses, without any consideration of what the person is actually claiming.

    "Take" is a little ambiguous. When you say that someone takes the blame for something, it could mean that the person accepts the blame, but it also could mean simply that others are blaming the person, even if the person claims total innocence.

  46. Marjory Khan said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    Re your article on crash blossoms in the 1/31/10 NYT Sunday magazine: What a felicitous term, suggesting words crashing together and blossoming into something unexpected! Even more felicitous that the term “crash BLOSSOMS” was advanced by a man named Dan BLOOM.

  47. Roland said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    An old favorite of mine:

    Supreme Court Considers Insanity Standard

  48. Dan bloom said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 8:46 am

    Simon Hoggart in the Uk Guardian picks up the meme, two weeks in a row, this week noting to his many readers: "Thanks for your "crash blossoms" – headlines which mean something they're not meant to mean. Peter Mittins sent Bus on Fire – Passengers Alight; I liked Leslie Plommer's Chinese in Car Clash, and One-legged Man Was Unbalanced; Victor Ford found in the Jerusalem Post, Haig Still Stiff on Withdrawal. I loved Tony Eldridge's memory from the old Westminster Times: Birth Pill Plan for Girls Flayed by Priests.

  49. Ray Dillinger said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

    It occurs to me that in a language such as Latin, which requires uses of noun-as-adjective to be inflected in a clear way, most crash blossoms would simply disappear. Of course the above, which depends on skipping a pronoun and leaving a verb where it can be parsed as a noun, would not. One couldn't write the above in a language whose verbs were lexically distinct from nouns (which includes Latin in most noun cases and verb tenses, but there are zero allomorphs in the present verb tense and nominative noun case, so headline writers could still get it wrong).

    Of course, English would disallow most crash blossoms too, if headline writers were required to write headlines that were grammatical according to the prestige dialect and to actually use the facilities available to disambiguate sentences. Pronouns, articles, prepositions, and conjunctions are important to those who wish to write clearly.

  50. IMarvinTPA said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    I read it as The White House reports that the slaughtered (Loss->Killed) Senators were killed (presumably eaten) by wild Bears.

    IMarv

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