Crash blossom finds remain

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A nice nominal-compound crash blossom was spotted by Nicholas Widdows on a BBC News web page:

Missing women police find remains

Like Missing comma, police decide to hire a grammarian, or Missing his mom, Joe called home? No, wait a minute, this isn't about the police missing womanly company — those first two words are not a gerund-participial predicative adjunct. Could missing be a modifier of women police, then? The remains were found in a remote area by some female police officers who had been reported as missing? A bit implausible. What about find? Is that really a tensed verb with plural agreement? Could it be a noun instead (as in a new find), with remains being the main clause verb, as in Paul Simon's line the roots of rhythm remain? No; it's not making any sense at all. You just can't figure out a plausible story.

Unless perhaps you're already following the news from Bradford, a Yorkshire town in northern England. The story is about a sadistic maniac who styles himself "the crossbow cannibal". (He calls himself this despite already being in custody. This is going to be a difficult case for the defense to win. The police have him on closed-circuit TV shooting a prostitute through the head with a crossbow.) A whole team of police has been search the River Aire, where this man has been throwing parts of the women he has killed and cut up. The BBC headline above, which refers to the finding of some more human remains in the river, has the nominal missing women (itself composed of a participle modifying a noun) as an attributive modifier of police, to make the singularly ungainly noun phrase missing women police.

You'd think a team of subeditors would have been called out on a crash blossom alert, and fixed it. But not so. The phrase missing women police, despite its stylistic clumsiness, currently appears as a tag for a "read more" pointer at this page, and has been picked up here and here and here and here and so on, as it makes its way round the world via the strange uncritical electroplagiarism that is a large part of the modern news industry.

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49 Comments »

  1. Johan Larson said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 8:01 am

    That is an awkward headline. They could have improved it by adding a bit of punctuation to separate the topic from the most recent news:

    Missing women: police find remains

    Or they could have splurged on two letters and a space:

    Police find remains of missing women

  2. John Atkinson said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 8:08 am

    So it turns out to mean exactly what I thought it did on my first reading! (The police assigned to investigate the missing women found some remains.) You certainly went out of your way to confound the issue and convince me my first reading might be wrong.

    [Yes, they call me the Trickster! Heh heh! (But it would be interesting to know whether you've been reading the UK papers. UK readers know that there is a missing-women hunt going on, and a missing-women squad on the Bradford police force assign to nothing else. That would help with getting the right interpretation.) —GKP]

  3. BlueBottle said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 8:26 am

    I thought the verb might be "police", as in "Females whose whereabouts are unknown regulate or control what's left of something that was found".

    [Absolutely right. That's a parse that is entirely permissible in terms of the grammar, and it even makes sense: archaeologists often have to police what remains of their finds. What makes this such a nice crash blossom is that missing, police, find, and remains can all be verbs, and women, police, find, and remains can all be nouns. You get a riotous profusion of possible false paths to follow. —GKP]

  4. J. Goard said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    First I've heard of this, so checked out a few pages.

    WTF do they keep referring to him as a "former grammar school pupil" or "former public schoolboy"? Is it because he later got a scholarship to a tony private academy? Even so, why would that be a reasonable way to describe a 40-year-old graduate student and murder suspect?

  5. Tom said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 9:12 am

    @J. Goard; in BrE "public school" actually means a private, fee-paying school; specifically the more traditional and often boarding variety (e.g. Eton etc.). In the mind of the British reader, "public schoolboy" therefore gives rise to a whole host of stereotypes relating to wealthy and upper/upper-middle class males, some of which certainly resonate with the details of this case (sado-masochistic, callous, repressed etc.). The papers, in their typical attempt to "add colour" to this story and fuel prurient speculation, are heavily employing this phrase as shorthand for the qualities described above. On closer inspection Griffiths fits the template pretty poorly; he was from a lower-middle-class family described as "not wealthy" and spent only three years at an independent grammar school in Wakefield, probably on a scholarship; I doubt these details will worry the press unduly as they've got such a convenient label.

  6. Andrew said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    A couple of years ago in a local London paper (Hackney Gazette I think):

    Missing girl remains found

    Which I parsed as good news for a moment until it reversed with a nearly-audible 'click' like the silhouette of a vase.

  7. Robert Coren said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    I guessed what it actually meant because LL has called my attention to similarly awkward constructions (although none quite as awkward as this) in British headlines in the past, but without that background the idea that there should be a set of police officers meriting the designation "missing women police" would probably not have occurred to me.

  8. Russell Cross said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    Crikey, I'm a "former grammar school pupil!" Do you think I might be the Crossbow Killer? Oh, and exactly how many crossbows has he killed?

  9. Daan said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    My first interpretation of this headline was the intended meaning, but then I started doubting myself, thinking that what I correctly took as the attributive modifier could not possibly be an attributive modifier. I suppose that may have been because of the stylistic problems you point out. Oh, and I was unaware of the hunt for those missing women.

  10. Ben said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    This is what hyphens are for:

    Missing-Women Police Find Remains

    Now it makes perfect sense. And the ugliness of the phrase "missing-women police" is laid bare.

  11. Stephen Jones said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    I took it, and still take it as remains have been found in the case of the missing women. I hear a clear pause between women and police.

  12. Scott said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    I must say I honestly couldn't make heads or tails out of that headline. Even after reading what the news story was all about I still can't make the headline make any grammatical sense to me.

  13. Scott said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    The headline would make sense if there was a police unit called the "missing women police" but that seems highly unlikely.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    Without any clues to what it was referring to I parsed it the same was as Johan Larson in the first comment:

    Missing Women: Police Find remains.

    After knowing what it's about, I still think that's the correct parsing, rather than "Missing Women" being an attributive modifier of "police".

    A case of missing punctuation, but the correct punctuation would be a colon or dash rather than a comma.

    Actually, I first imagined it as missing a comma, and only upon reading the bit of the post right under the quoted headline did I realize that adding a comma gives the wrong reading.

    Though, given the headline noun pile phrases quoted here in Language log, I do admit, "missing women police" as a noun phrase in a headline is plausable.

    However, the headline is interpretable, with the correct information conveyed (police found remains of missing women) without needing to know the background of the story.

  15. Army1987 said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    My first reading had "missing women" as subject, "police" as verb, and "find remains" as object, but being unable to figure out what the hell a "find remain" would be, I read it again, and got the right meaning.

  16. John Cowan said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    In the U.K. press, the rule is to Omit Needless Punctuation, where "needless" is construed very strictly: punctuation seems to be permitted only if the correct meaning cannot possibly be discovered without it. Sentences with clarifying punctuation are apparently seen as heavy and ponderous.

    Soon I daresay they will be omitting periods at the end of sentences in the story itself, on the grounds that the capital letter is all you really need.

  17. Jonathan said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    I came up with the intended meaning after a few minutes, but also could interpret it as

    The "find" of the "missing women / police" [police assigned to investigating missing women] "remains," if remains has some special technical meaning.

  18. GAC said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    Never heard of the case, but I still read it correctly the first time. I mentally added the pause that would make it be read that way. Maybe my brain simply made a flash decision that "[Missing women [police]]" aren't likely in a headline, either because women in general go missing more often than policewomen, or because I would expect "policewomen".

    And the notion of missing people policing something is totally weird to me. If you know they are policing something, wouldn't that mean you have at least a rough idea where they are?

    Note I agree that all of those parsings are grammatical. I'm saying that this time either my semantics were strong or I was just quite lucky.

  19. Karen said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    Knowing it was a British headline I parsed it correctly first time.

  20. Nijma said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    I parsed it the first time as "missing women find police remains". Maybe law enforcement is more dangerous here, or maybe it makes more sense for women to "find remains" than to "police remains".

  21. YM said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    Just spotted today:
    BP new idea for spill
    Where? The Riviera? The Arctic? I can't wait!

  22. xyzzyva said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    @GKP,
    Couldn't missing (for those who are missing) also be a noun? (not at all likely in this particular instance, though)

    It's too bad there's no plausible verbing of women, or this headline might have hit the Crash Blossom jackpot.

  23. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    Before I began reading LL, this would have been gibberish to me. You've trained me in parsing crash blossoms, though, and so I got it on the first try. It's not the most useful skill, but I suppose I should be grateful for anything I've learned to do competently . . .

  24. Sid Smith said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    This looks like an extreme (and very horrible) form of pretty standard UK journalese. The phrase 'missing women police' is intended to restrict the meaning: the journo doesn't want to state that the remains are definitely those of the women who are missing, only that the discovery has been made by officers who are looking for the missing women.

    Given more space, eg a TV news broadcast, the wording might be 'Police investigating the disappearance of two sex workers have found human remains.'

  25. Private Zydeco said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    De-pluralize remains works too.

  26. Private Zydeco said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    Which yields up occasion for yet another infinite thought, namely:
    (missing) women police find remain missing women police find missing
    (ad infinitum)

  27. Private Zydeco said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    Well, almost (an infinite thought).

  28. Private Zydeco said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

    emended retraction:
    missing women police find remain missing women police find remain missing women police find remain missing women police find remain…

  29. Daevol said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    In related news: missing-comma police decide to hire a grammarian

  30. Joyce Melton said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 2:58 am

    John Cowan, you joke about leaving out the periods or "full stops" but I have seen this happening in postings by British writers, much much more so that with Americans and when care is taken to do other punctuation correctly.

  31. maidhc said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 3:13 am

    Today's Sydney Morning Herald has this headline: "Puddy wheelie bin found in bush".

    When you click on it, you're directed to an article in Western Australia Today with the somewhat more comprehensible headline "Police find wheelie bin in Puddy search". By putting "Puddy" in the middle, you know by the capitalization that it's a proper noun of some sort, not some strange Australian adjective.

    The article starts by clarifying things more: "Police have described the discovery of a wheelie bin in a national park in Perth's north as a massive breakthrough in their hunt for the body of missing millionaire Craig Puddy."

  32. outeast said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 4:52 am

    FWLIW, as a lifetime reader of Br newspapers but with no prior knowledge of the case in question I had no hesitation in parsing it correctly. In fact it didn't even strike me as a crash blossom.

  33. Stuart said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 5:07 am

    NZ newspapers must use similar styles to UK papers. I did not know anything about the story, but I parsed it correctly at first glance.

  34. Amanda said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    I read it first as "the remains of the missing female police officers have been found." I've just never heard the term "missing women police" used for police officers whose job it is to find missing women. But it makes more sense than my initial thought.

  35. Pook said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    I'd imagine that part of what is going on is to do with replacing 'prostitute' with 'women'. The BBC was alerted to the inappropriateness of referring to the victims as 'prostitutes' rather than 'women', what with all the implications. They then seemed to go through their coverage and replace 'prostitutes' with 'women' in the headlines. That may have led to clumsier headlines than otherwise.

  36. Steve F said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

    As someone both experienced with British headlines, and previously aware of the story (as you can imagine, it is provoking considerable shocked and ghoulish comment over here) I obviously knew what it meant immediately, though I agree its multiple possible readings and ambiguities are egregious even by the usual standards, and I quite understand that many will find it both incomprehensible and annoyingly perverse. But, as I have previously commented about such crash blossoms, it may not just be a need for brevity, and the British journalistic tendency to use very long compound nouns in headlinese, that causes such peculiarities. One thing it forces you to do is to read the story to find out what on earth it's talkng about, and that is one of the main purpose of headlines, after all.

  37. John said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 12:03 am

    It gets worse. According to the BBC RSS feed, "Women search remains 'not human.'"

  38. outeast said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 4:14 am

    @Amanda
    That would be 'missing women police remains found'.

  39. rjp said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 4:15 am

    Same case, mildly similar vein, "Cannibal Cops Find Killer's Kit".

    In which a group of policemen with a taste for human flesh find a kit for facilitating killing?

  40. Ben said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 5:48 am

    Without knowing about the case at hand, I also interpreted this headline correctly, but I admit I did not believe it was grammatical.

    "Missing women" and "police find remains" each on their own are common enough and sensible enough phrases that my mind immediately separated the headline into these two components. After that the meaning became obvious that there were some missing women and that police found their remains.

    But I assumed it was just sloppy headline writing where all the elements were thrown together in a non-grammatical construction. It never occurred to me that "missing women police" was actually a grammatically correct noun phrase. That's just ugly.

    I'm almost happier believing that the headline author sloppily left out a colon that I am believing they intended that noun construction.

  41. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 6:26 am

    @rjp:

    There's an excellent vignette of the images that one provokes here:

    http://www.fivechinesecrackers.com/2010/05/those-legendary-sun-headline-writers.html

    Not a crash blossom per se, but still ripe for satire.

    @Ben:

    No, they really did intend it as a compound noun phrase. Same as "Cannibal cops" but even uglier.

  42. Boris said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    I'm from the US and I got the general sense of the headline (police find[s] remains of missing women), but didn't think for a moment that "missing women police" could be a compound noun. I thought it was a bad re-ordering to skip the word "of" (better would police find missing women remains).

    To me X police means a nonexistent or wannabe entity imagined to be in charge of policing X (like the fashion police), or possibly a real entity that is called that colloquially, but is not really part of the real police force. This interferes with the intended reading where X is (apparently) a well-recognized event. I wouldn't have a problem with "9/11 firefighters", but "9/11 police" doesn't work for me.

  43. andrew c said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    also
    Missing! Remains of the find that Women Police made

  44. David D said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

    I see I need practice in crash-blossom reading skills: I first parsed this as Missing women police (women who, ceteris paribus, ought to be cops, but aren't through sexism) find (finding, or conclusion of some study) remains (is no longer thought to be refuted).

  45. Jon F said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    And here I was thinking it was a bad headline because it couldn't be sung to the tune of "Camptown Races".

  46. speedwell said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    Weird, did anyone get what I got? I couldn't make any sense out of it for a minute, until I came up with something like "They still haven't figured out how to remove the evidence that the police found in the missing-women case."

  47. Ellen K. said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    Jon F: Couldn't, or could?

  48. Suzanne H said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    Just a few days later, the BBC used another headline which is equally difficult to parse: "Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed"
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/berkshire/10241928.stm

  49. Kristin D said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    Sheesh. Good thing I don't read UK papers … my uber-literal mind would probably explode.

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