Drug trial dies, dog due to be wed

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Readers have recently sent in some examples of crash blossoms in headlines about tragic events.

Melissa Chan, “Man Left Brain Dead After French Drug Trial Dies“, Time Magazine 1/17/2016.
Kim Willsher, “Man left brain-dead after French drug trial dies in hospital“, The Guardian 1/17/2016.
Will Worley, “France clinical trial: Man left brain-dead after drug test dies“, The Independent 1/18/2016.

Of course it was the man who really died, although the “drug trial” or “drug test” also metaphorically died.

Adam Cullen, “Woman killed while walking dog due to be wed“, The Irish Independent 1/13/2016.

About that one, Amy de Buitléir wrote

My first attempt to parse it yielded: a dead woman is getting married. Second parse: A dog is getting married, and the woman who walked that dog was killed.

The headline now reads “Woman killed while walking dog was due to wed”, which is somewhat less susceptible to misinterpretation. But in general, natural languages are not very well designed to convey complex information without either extreme circumlocution or a substantial amount of help from common sense understanding of the probable background. And in English, omitting function words from headlines makes it worse.

 

 



11 Comments

  1. Sidney Wood said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 6:26 am

    The brain-dead man was already dead, surely? Or yet another example that the general public hasn’t accepted the meaning of brain-dead, that somehow anyone brain-dead can still be revived.

  2. David Morris said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    Recently I saw:
    ‘African boy attacked by chimps getting facial surgery in U.S.’

  3. Guy Plunkett III said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 8:36 am

    Why not “Bride-to-be killed while walking dog”? Of course, if the paper’s style guide ruled against the hyphens, we’d have the appallingly bad “Bride to be killed while walking dog”.

  4. Ray said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 9:28 am

    or maybe it was the man’s left brain that died, after the drug test died, and he lived happily ever after (being now quite right in the head)? :-p

  5. v01ces said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 10:39 am

    Can you guess what this headline means: “Tennis Officials Deny Suppressing Fixing Alleged in Reports”?

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 11:39 am

    @v01ces

    Yes, that seems fairly transparent: they are denying the suppression of (presumably match-) fixing that was alleged in a report, right?

  7. Nathan said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

    @Sidney Wood: I think you’re reading too much (or too little) into the distinction between brain-dead and dead. There are significant differences. Organ donation comes to mind first.

  8. Veronica said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 2:29 pm

    I ran across this one yesterday:

    “Document proving WWII military sex slaves now at home in KU library”

  9. Sidney Wood said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 6:31 pm

    @Nathan. Brain-dead is beyond resuscitation, a coma or cardiac arrest not necessarily so. Donated organs can be kept fresh with a respirator etc. Legislation might differ in different countries.

  10. v01ces said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 3:10 am

    @Pflaumbaum

    So, they deny suppressing match-fixing and are, in fact, encouraging it? Yes, seems legit.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    Well I assume they’re suppressing allegations of match-fixing contained in the report.

    There may be ambiguity, but your reading’s not very salient.

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