Proposed to by a lightning strike?

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Poor Bethany Lott; poor Richard Butler, who would have married her; and poor headline writer who penned this appalling crash blossom:

Bethany Lott killed while being proposed to by a lightning strike in Knoxville

Bethany was not proposed to by a lightning strike. She would have been proposed to by her boyfriend Richard Butler, who took her hiking in the North Carolina mountains that she loved and planned to pop the question when they reached the top. Three lightning strikes homed in on them, and the third scored a direct hit, killing her and wounding him. The story is here. And what a disaster of a headline it got.

The writer's syntactic problem was simply the ordering of three preposition phrases: (1) the temporal adjunct while being proposed to; (2) the passive complement by a lightning strike; and (3) the locative adjunct in Knoxville. All that was needed was to order complements before adjuncts, and locative before temporal adjuncts, as normal in English, and everything would have been hunky dory: Bethany Lott killed by a lightning strike in Knoxville while being proposed to.

That would still have been false (Richard never got to tell her he wanted to marry her; after her last words "Look at how beautiful it is" she was promptly killed by the lightning bolt), but at least it wouldn't have tainted a very sad romantic story with a catastrophically ludicrous ambiguity.

This is the sort of crash blossom that makes you wonder if news sources don't make them up deliberately to have fun, giggling to each other about overcharging the dead, missing women police, batter markets, drinking rockets, and so on.

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21 Comments »

  1. Bobbie said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    The lightning did not strike in Knoxville! That is where the couple lived.

  2. Boris said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    Does this actually qualify as a crash blossom? I thought those have a possible reading with the intended meaning.

    I wonder if it was a "don't end a sentence with a preposition" thing.

    Also this headline is way to long. It identifies someone who is not well known to the public by name and uses unnecessary passive voice and other needless words (Hey, maybe the prescriptivist usage guides were really meant for headline writers. Except the preposition thing). Also it happened in North Carolina. They were *from* Knoxville. How about "Knoxville woman killed by lightning while being proposed to"? 9 words instead of 13.

  3. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    Not a headline, but oil in D.C.? "Recall that last Friday the president refused to take any questions after delivering his angry statement on the oil spill in the Rose Garden." (www.cbsnews.com, 17 May 2010).

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    I rather wonder if the regular headline writer was unavailable and they just used the draft sent in by some unskilled local correspondent. Beyond the problem of the crash blossom, the sheer verbosity of Bethany Lott killed while being proposed to by a lightning strike in Knoxville suggests a writer unacquainted with the conventions of headline writing (present tense, highly compressed, and minimum of connecting words, as used in other news reports in the Herald Sun. Not to mention naming the victim in the headline; readers of the Australian-based Herald Sun wouldn't know who Bethany Lott of Knoxville is.

    I suggest: Lightning kills mountain proposal girlfriend.

  5. Spectre-7 said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    I think I can do you one better:

    Lightning Killed Knoxville Woman During Proposal

    Clumsy? Perhaps, but I've got it down to 6 words without passive voice or sentence-final preposition. Strunk would be so proud of me… I think I may need to go upchuck now.

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    PS: The London Evening Standard had Lightning tragedy before proposal. The Sun had Lightning kills lover on some editions, but went a bit far with LOVE-STRUCK.

  7. Spectre-7 said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    @Ray Girvan

    Mountain proposal girlfriend strikes me as much more in the British newspaper mode.

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    GKP: giggling to each other

    … brainstorming headlines like PROPOZAPPED! I can understand how the puzzle aspect could be irresistible and override all taste.

  9. Boris said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    @Ray Girvan, I realize you're joking, but as I understand this convention "mountain proposal girlfriend" would only be use where "mountain proposal" (or even "mountain proposal girlfriend") was some previously known topic. Anyway, in my earlier post I called out the passive voice but then left it in in my suggestion. It doesn't seem to fly as I can't make a "Lightning kills" version without implying that it was lightning that was being proposed to, hardly an improvement to the existing headline, so I'll stand by my passive voice version.

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    Boris: @Ray Girvan, I realize you're joking … "mountain proposal girlfriend" …

    Not at all: for UK papers, that really is how they do it.

  11. John said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    Definitely not a crash blossom. Just bad English word order. The only way this makes sense is if you allow the obvious(?) semantic situation to override the syntax.

    "Woman struck by lightning during proposal"

  12. JimG said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    Small-city newspapers need to serve a different type of readership, and the headline writer had to shoehorn in all of the following:
    - the victim's name (perhaps of local interest),
    - that she lived in Knoxville,
    - how it happened, and
    - the compelling human interest angle.
    Try it yourself.
    And consider that small-market papers may pay small-market salaries.

  13. Lazygal said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    Saw this crash blossom over on TVtattle.com: "Why are "True Blood" vamps obsessed with boring Sookie?" (imagine my surprise when it turned out that it's Sookie that's boring, not the vamps!)

  14. ignoramus said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

    lightning zaps Knoxville lass expecting proposal.

  15. Boris said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    @JimG,
    Since when is news.com.au a small town newspaper?

  16. Karen said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    Bethany Lott of Knoxville killed by lighting during proposal (while being proposed to)

    Interestingly, however, the actual local paper's headlines (see the Knoxville News Sentinel) are:

    Hiker's boyfriend was to propose (Jun 7)

    Woman killed by lightning minutes from becoming engaged (Jun 6)

  17. Andrew Brown said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    As a (British) journalist I can only say that "Love-struck" is perfect of its kind, especially if it appeared in the brief column.

  18. peter said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    Ray Girvan said (June 22, 2010 @ 1:18 pm):

    "Beyond the problem of the crash blossom, the sheer verbosity . . suggests a writer unacquainted with the conventions of headline writing (present tense, highly compressed, and minimum of connecting words, . . ."

    What you write may be true of tabloid newspapers, but these are not the conventions of some other newspapers, for example The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Long, verbose, and multiple headlines are standard fare in those papers. For instance, here are the two headlines of the first story from today's International Herald Tribune (IHT), the global edition of the former paper:

    "Markets rally as China lets its currency edge higher

    "Officials worldwide cheer policy shift that brightens outlook for exporters"

    Indeed, the 4 leading stories on today's front page of the IHT have a total of 7 headlines, with a combined total of 63 words (ie, an average of over 15 headline words per story!)

  19. Gordon Campbell said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    Pope wrote an epitaph for a young couple that would be very appropriate to this recent tragedy. See http://thames.me.uk/s01960.htm

  20. Army1987 said,

    June 25, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    What about "Bethany Lott killed by a lightning strike while being proposed to in Knoxville"?

  21. Eddy said,

    June 28, 2010 @ 5:13 am

    How about "Lightning Proposal Kills Girl"? Short, a pun and factually incorrect – ideal tabloid headline.

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