Crash blossom du jour, from the Beeb

« previous post | next post »

The top headline in the Business section of BBC News currently reads:

Greece fears batter markets again

Sean Purdy, who sent this one in to Language Log Plaza, writes, "However hard I try to parse this correctly, I cannot suppress the mental image of traders buying and selling the raw materials for Yorkshire pud – and scaring the Greeks in the process."

This shares a strong family resemblance to previously noted crash blossoms (as unintentionally ambiguous headlines have come to be called). The errant garden-path interpretation is set into motion by the second word, fears, which can be construed as either a plural noun (as part of the noun-noun compound "Greece fears") or a third-person singular present-tense verb (with "Greece" as its subject). Taking the verb path then allows the next two words ("batter markets") to be read as a noun-noun compound (the object of "fears") rather than as a verb and its noun complement.

Compare, from our files, "SNP Signals Debate Legal Threat," "Google Fans Phone Expectations by Scheduling Android Event," "McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers," and "Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts." Similar crash blossoms of an earlier vintage (as collected here) include "Carter Plans Swell Deficit" (Houston Tribune, 3/17/77) and "Research Fans Hope for Spinal Injuries" (Vancouver Sun, 7/23/86).

Share:



44 Comments »

  1. John Lawler said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    A few minutes on Google News looking for "batter markets" with quotes got:

    Greece fears batter markets again
    Europe economy fears batter markets
    Recession Fears Batter Markets Across World
    Credit crisis fears batter markets
    Mideast, Inflation Fears Batter Markets
    Credit crisis fears batter markets
    Global financial sector worries, flu batter markets
    Consumer Prices Batter Markets
    Inflation fears batter markets
    LOW PULP PRICES BATTER MARKETS

    as well as the following uncrashed blossoms:

    Greece Fears Again Batter Markets (this is why adverbs are movable)
    Wall St.'s Fears On Lehman Bros. Batter Markets (one apostrophe would do it)
    Winds of political and economic sentiment batter markets

  2. MattF said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    And if there was a baseball player who also speculated in unbaked pastry, we could have "Batter Batter Batter Markets".

  3. David L said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    Years ago, there were many stories about European agricultural policies leading to overproduction of various comestibles, giving us butter mountains and wine lakes and so on. Now, apparently, batter production is out of control and threatening to engulf Europe in a slow-moving, viscous batter quagmire, starting in the southeast corner.

  4. rone said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    This particular bugaboo is probably not found in England, what with their treating countries as a plural noun. Also, why is it "fears" and not "fear"? Everyone's afraid that Greece's economy will tank; is there another fear involved?

  5. Army1987 said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    Did anyone *seriously* take fries in "McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers" to be the verb?

  6. Andrew F said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    rone,
    Countries are not always treated with the plural noun (e.g.) , as discussed here (with links to style guides) and here. For example, a distinction is made between "England are defeated" at football and "England is defeated" at war.

    Army1987,
    I did. If they were talking about potato slices they would have written "McDonald’s Chips the Holy Grail…" and opened up a different ambiguity, surely? ;-)

    Obviously I realised by the time I reached the end of the sentence.

  7. mpg said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    > Did anyone *seriously* take fries in "McDonald’s Fries the Holy
    > Grail for Potato Farmers" to be the verb?

    Undoubtedly.

    Welcome to the Internet, where everything is not only possible but darned near expected and even predictable.

    -mpg

  8. David L said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    @rone: To my ear, "Greece fears" connotes generalized anxiety about what's going on in Greece, but "Greece fear" would mean ellenophobia, if I'm not making that word up.

  9. Chris Waigl said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    @Rone – in BrE, countries are plural only in the context of sports. So "Greece fears [something]" is ok, and if it was "Greece fear [something]", I'd be looking for a football connection (given Greece isn't known for being a cricket nation). So the Telegraph titles: France fears binge drinking bug has arrived, for example.

    @John – love "uncrashed blossom".

  10. jeffrey said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    This really should have been:

    Greece fears batter Hungary, Turkey markets again

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    What I want to know is what happened to Greece in the last batter market crash.

  12. mpg said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    @Ginger Yellow: They were all whipped up into a frenzy.

    -mpg

  13. Private Zydeco said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    Of course here also is an unmistakeable PUN on GREASE!

  14. Private Zydeco said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    @Chris Waigl — effectively turning the singular Proper noun Greece, which denotes the country as a political entity, into… a plural count noun without any derivational suffix"?

    Rone – To add to ChrisWaigl's informative fact-purveying: it would seem that the totality of those dreading economic downturns are not being considered by this headline's author as truly of one, consistent mind — which is part of the cause of such panic to begin with, one thinks — the entailment of that supposition being that multiple instantiations of fear are cropping up, and not all of them the same one to the letter, necessarily.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    Here's one from Reuters about a health-insurance company:

    WellPoint says to stop dropping patients after May 1

    Actually Congress told insurance companies to stop dropping patients. WellPoint says it is to comply.

  16. Peter Taylor said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    This particular bugaboo is probably not found in England, what with their treating countries as a plural noun.

    This particular example is from the BBC.

    @Rone – in BrE, countries are plural only in the context of sports.

    How often are countries plural even then? "Greece fear [something]" sounds unnatural to me, and I would certainly expect a headline to say "Brazil wins World Cup" rather than "Brazil win World Cup". A few minutes searching the BNC doesn't turn up any examples of Greece as a plural.

  17. Faldone said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    WellPoint says to stop dropping patients after May 1

    It's another case of specialized headline English. The translation into normal English would be "WellPoint say it will stop dropping patients after May 1."

    @Army1987 Re: "McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers"

    Whether anyone seriously took "fries" to be a verb is beside the point. The headline as written is just begging to be interpreted that way.

  18. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    "How often are countries plural even then? "Greece fear [something]" sounds unnatural to me, and I would certainly expect a headline to say "Brazil wins World Cup" rather than "Brazil win World Cup"

    In a sporting context, all the time. It's not 100% consistent, but usually a sporting team is plural. Certainly a singular verb looks odd to a British eye. For a plural Greece, see this story:
    "England must now win their two remaining qualifying matches and hope Greece lose to Macedonia.

    Even without their star player, Sotiris Ninis, Greece were much the better side in the early stages, so it was no surprise when they took the lead in the 28th minute."

  19. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    Also, from the BBC: "Greece win Euro 2004"

  20. Will said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    @Army1987: As someone who has never eaten at McDonalds and rarely eats french fries, I'm not particularly sensitive to the the collocation "McDonalds fries". So the crash blossom reading of fries as a verb was the first one I got. In fact, after my initial incorrect parsing of:

    ((McDonald’s) (Fries) (the Holy Grail)) (for Potato Farmers)

    My second parsing was also incorrect, because I was still convinced fries was a verb:

    (McDonald’s) (Fries) (the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers)

    I was thinking "hmm, I guess the holy grail for potato farmers is some kind of special potato, and that's what McDonald's was frying".

    It was a while before I got the intended meaning.

    @John Lawler: Technically "Greece Fears Again Batter Markets" is still potentially ambiguous since "fears again" can function as a verb unit. But yeah, such a reading is awkward, so the uncrashed-blossom reading is probably the more likely one.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    And one from the BBC related to those above:

    Settlement ban fear of Palestinian labourers

    (That would have been better from the Strunk & White point of view and everyone else's as "Palestinian labourers fear settlement ban". They'd lose their construction jobs in the settlements.)

    (Sorry about messing up the HTML in my previous post. I'm not sure it's worth fixing.)

  22. HW said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    I caught a good one the other day:

    Uni Demands Cloud Power of Watchdog

  23. AcidFlask said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    Here's another incredible headline (http://probablybadnews.com/2010/04/28/funny-news-what-are-co2-scientists): Whale poo could help oceans absorb CO2-scientists.

  24. Faldone said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    Settlement ban fear of Palestinian labourers

    This is definitely not in the mainstream of US headline style. As written I'd take it as saying that the Settlement (taken as a plural) has forbidden people to be afraid of Palestinian labourers. Jerry's "Palestinian labourers fear settlement ban" works for me, though.

  25. Matt Brubeck said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    David Foster Wallace spoofed this in his novel Girl With Curious Hair, with the headline "Firm Doctors Telephone Poles."

  26. Army1987 said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    @Will: I don't normally eat at McDonald's either, but I eat fries quite often, so I guess that's why I understood the right meaning right away. Probably, I wouldn't even have noticed another parsing was possible, if I had encountered that headline in a context unrelated to crash blossoms.

  27. Geoff Pullum said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    Gosh, I love crash blossoms. After a hard working day, I giggled at some of the above until tears came to my happy eyes. Thank you, commenters. Thank you, Ben. Thanks, Language Log!

  28. Nathan Myers said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    Army1987: Rule 34. Not only did they… [I will carry this no farther. Look it up yourself.]

  29. Justin said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    Why not "Greek fears batter markets again"?

  30. Parmenator-X said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    This comes from the AP:

    Grandparents hope to see boy ditched at NY church

    And so does this:

    Grandparents in NY to see boy ditched at cathedral

  31. Peter said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    I love the "Consumer Prices Batter Markets" one:

    "I'm thinking of investing in batter, but I have to find out how much it would cost."

  32. Will said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    Here's a relative newcomer in the batter markets, but it's likely to "shake things up", so to speak:

    http://www.batterblaster.com/

  33. Sheldon Light said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 4:35 am

    I just came across one that really scares me: "Granholm to sign ban on texting while driving." http://detnews.com/article/20100429/POLITICS02/4290424/Granholm-to-sign-ban-on-texting-while-driving

  34. George said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:14 am

    @ Justin. "Greek fears batter markets again" would suggest that it is the Greeks who are afraid. They may well be but the point here is that the markets are afraid of what is happening in Greece.

  35. Graeme said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:16 am

    I saw the 'Greece Fears' headline, thought for a millisecond on whether it was a crash blossom then downgraded it to clunky headline whose meaning was blatant.

    Markets Battered by Greece Fears is marginally better but risks mislocating the fear.

  36. George said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    @ Sheldon Light. That one's a beauty. But is it really a crash blossom? I might have this wrong but I think of a crash blossom as involving a wrong path taken relatively early on in the reading. It isn't even particularly abbreviated, which tends to be why crash blossoms happen. Maybe this is just an example of more generic ambiguity.

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    Today's N.Y. Post has one that is syntactically ambiguous in largely the same way, but with the other analysis being the intended one ("Taxi kills dwarf gay crusader", where "kills" rather than "dwarf" is meant to be the verb). My question is whether the alternative analysis is sufficiently implausible that no one will get stuck on it. Of course, the intended meaning is itself a bit surreal in a tabloid-shock kind of way. The ambiguity could have been totally avoided with "Taxi kills gay dwarf crusader," but for all I know that could have caused other problems.

  38. Army1987 said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    I could interpret "dwarf gay crusader" as a gay who participates in gay crusades and happens to be a dwarf, and vice versa for "gay dwarf crusader".

  39. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    The decedent was apparently interested in a number of different causes, so you can draw your own conclusions as to whether the headline was optimal:

    http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/taxi_kills_dwarf_gay_crusader_TLADXeflQs2ZYo24GdyJkL.

  40. Sheldon Light said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

    @ George. I'm no linguist (although I fathered one) – and no expert on crash blossoms.But isn't the mother of all crash blossoms this one: "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crash_blossom) If that's the paradigm, then I think my example fits the pattern.

  41. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:41 am

    @Sheldon Light. Yes, you're right to point out that the wrong path in the original crash blossom isn't taken early on. My bad. Neither is the original crash blossom abbreviated at all; it is a complete sentence. Again my bad. And yet…. something still bothers me about your example. For some reason, it doesn't feel like a crash blossom to me, although I obviously made a complete mess of anlysing why in my earlier post. Is it because the ambiguity isn't due to a noun/verb confusion?

  42. Słowosław said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    There's a good one today:

    Candidate votes tweet apology

    (about halfway down this page – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/default.stm – under "more election news").

  43. KevinM said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    I see from today's headline that Goldman, Sachs has finally learned to play well with the other children:
    "Goldman shares slide"

  44. Rodger C said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    From CNN this morning: "Police hunt failed Times Square bomber."

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment