Six nouns, six verbs, who knows

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Whatever exactly we decide a crash blossom is, we are surely going to want to agree with James Martin, of the Department of Statistics at Oxford University, that this is one:

May axes Labour police beat pledge

James notes that every single one of these six words can serve as either a noun (sample possible senses: fifth month; woodcutting implements; opposition party; constabulary; musical timing unit; commitment) or a verb (will possibly; performs chopping; work hard; oversee; physically chastise; give a promise). So we start with 26 = 64 different assignments of noun or verb status, and start sifting about for a coherent parse that gives us a meaning that could make sense in some context.

If some of us succeed in parsing it, that's quite remarkable. It's a singularly difficult one in isolation, especially if you're not up to the minute with British political news. To satisfy your curiosity about whether you parsed it correctly, go to this article in The Guardian.

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50 Comments »

  1. Nathan said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    I'm an American largely ignorant of British politics, and still got the right idea. By the way, the capitalization of Labour disambiguates it; you only have 25 = 32 possible assignments.

    [Nathan is right here, of course. Only if one ignores capitalization can the six words all said to be noun/verb ambiguous. —GKP]

  2. Russell Borogove said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    Sly of you to not even mention the proper noun possibilities; I think I parsed it right, but I note that they've changed the headline to make it less ambiguous (and thus less fun).

  3. sarang said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    Didn't find this difficult at all. Labour is a noun (and refers to the party) b'se of capitalization. "Axes" is either pl. noun or 3p sing. verb. The former can be parsed as "May axes (that Labour police) beat pledge" but that would only make sense if the May axes were some sort of medieval terrorist gang that had promised to kill X people and overdone it slightly, and in that case why would _Labour_ be policing them? This leaves May as n., axes as v., no other v. (because Labour doesn't take modifiers, being a proper noun) and pledge as the ultimate object of axes. At which point everything falls into place. One's subconscious does this more efficiently of course.

  4. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    It would be better if they hyphenated police-beat. (I was home in England last month so I got it)

  5. Ellen K. said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    I think the capitalization of Labour, but not of any other words except the first, makes it pretty straight forward and easy to parse. I can't come up with any alternative parsings. I did have to look at the article to find out what a police beat pledge is, though.

  6. Chris Kern said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    Yeah, this one wasn't too bad — I still think the worst one you have ever posted is "SNP signals debate legal threat". I feel like I'm still not sure exactly what that one means.

  7. Devon Strolovitch said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    "Axes" has been changed to "scraps" — modestly clearer, but still not unambiguously a verb. May's first name (Theresa) has also been added.

  8. Catsidhe said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    Capitalisation reduces the phase space.

    ‘Labour’ is obviously the political party, and with ‘axes’ fitting well as a 3rd person singular present tense verb, that implies that ‘May’ is a proper name.

    So: A person called May has cancelled something associated with Labour: a ‘police beat pledge’.

    Without looking at the article (which I haven't) I can guess that a politician named May has cancelled a promise from the Labour party to (I assume) increase the number of police on the beat. Which, being a new Conservative government in a cost-cutting frenzy, makes a fair amount of sense.

    As far as I can tell, none of the other options for verb have subjects or objects which parse to anything remotely sensible.

  9. Jens Fiederer said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

    Got it on the first try – and as the first commenter noted, the capitalization of Labour made it feasible.

  10. YM said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    They fixed it to disambiguate "May".

  11. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    I agree with the other commenters that this was easy (for someone who takes it up as a puzzle, not necessarily for someone who merely wants to learn about the news of the day). Here's exactly what I wrote down before looking at the article: "Someone called May gets rid of a pledge by the Labour party pertaining to the police beat."

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    It is difficult but not beyond most adept English language speakers. Makes me sympathetic for machine translation software writers, though. Not to introduce a bad signs topic (so please don't go there) but on a sign recently in an industrial park driveway was this message: ONE WAY TRUCKS DO NOT ENTER. My first thought was, "They don't?" And then, "What's a one way truck?" I think they don't want trucks to use the driveway, but the message is gibberish.

  13. Army1987 said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

    I had parsed it nearly correctly at the first attempt, except I thought "Labour" modified "police" rather than "pledge", so it left me wondering whether the Labour Party actually has its own police.

  14. Army1987 said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

    (But I was helped by my being a Queen fan and thinking about the family name "May" before even finishing reading the second paragraph of the post.)

  15. the next Prescott Niles said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    I also (1) am an American largely ignorant of British politics, (2) am a Queen fan, and (3) had no problem with this one. Calling it "singularly difficult" is starting to look a little alarmist.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    I got it on the first try. With the present political situation 'axes' is definitely a verb which means May must be a proper noun. There must be something to be axed and that can only be the pledge.

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 8:44 pm

    I think they don't want trucks to use the driveway, but the message is gibberish.

    No, just badly punctuated.
    ONE WAY: TRUCKS DO NOT ENTER

  18. grackle said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

    Without looking, I would say that someone named "May" cut out or stopped the promise that the Labour party made concerning areas or times of police-persons' service. Close?

  19. Will said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    I did not find this easy to parse, if only because I've read too many bad British headlines on this blog. If I had read this in an American paper it probably wouldn't have given me much trouble. But I thought that the answer would involve "May axes Labour" police, sort of like the BBC's "missing women police", who fulfilled some sort of pledge. Totally nonsensical but no worse than many of the headlines discussed on this blog.

    I thought that maybe the headline meant that Labour laid off more police May than they had initially promised. But that would be "May police axes (axings, in the sense of acts of firing) beat Labour pledge" or maybe "Labour May police axes beat pledge". Of course Labour isn't in government any more, and even given Britain's budget problems no government would brag about firing a bunch of police.

  20. Xmun said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    I have read no more than GKP's first paragraph but the meaning seems clear to me. A politician called May has decided to scrap the pledge given by the Labour Party to increase the number of policemen on the beat (that's to say, walking about the streets and keeping an eye on things). Am I close? PS. Yes, close, but no cigar.

  21. un malpaso said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

    OK.. I didn;'t cheat nor did I look at the other posts, and I am an American who doesn't have any idea what the story context might be. So, here is my guess:

    Someone named "May," rather is the key (?) This "May" person axed, or reneged on, the Labour party's pledge to (do something about) police beats… most likely a promise to increase them, politics being what it is everywhere.

    I know I may be completely off base, but I wanted to jump in and test myself first! After all, local politics provide a rich environment for headline writers to run wild, whether in the UK or anywhere else in the world :)

  22. un malpaso said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

    Hm. looks like I thought the exact same thing as Xmun. I guess it seemed, unconsciously, less likely to me that "axe" should be used as an action noun based on its metaphorical verbal use, than that someone should be named "May."

  23. Mark Mandel said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

    Yeah, it's solveable. But it shouldn't need to be solved.

  24. John McIntyre said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

    Exactly, Mr. Mandel.

  25. Jens Fiederer said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 12:47 am

    > Yeah, it's solveable. But it shouldn't need to be solved.

    Oh, NO question that it was dreadful!

  26. ShadowFox said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 1:01 am

    Sorry, not complicated enough. If you start from the end, "pledge" requires something to be pledged–this would have to be either "beat" or, more suggestively, "police beat"–this being a unit, under normal circumstances. So that leaves the other three to wonder about which one's a verb. Given that this is obviously British politics (LaboUr), that leaves "axes" as the likely verb–you know, with the change in government and all that. Even if you don't start from "pledge", "axes" really stands out in this context as not fitting. The two proper nouns help, but, ultimately, the problem is not six verbs/nouns, but the fact that May is a name. That is the difficulty in parsing, not all the noun/verb ambiguities.

  27. John said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 1:14 am

    I agree with others that it was fairly easy even for a foreigner to get it right on the first try.

    In context though, I'll bet it was dead simple, esp. with her photo there.

  28. Xmun said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 1:16 am

    How about this headline, to be found in today's stuff.co.nz website (and presumably also in today's or perhaps tomorrow's Dominion Post):

    "Car key clue as victim named"
    From http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/3868722/Car-key-clue-as-victim-named

    I read it as meaning that a car key was a clue in the investigation. No, they mean that a car is a key clue.

  29. peter said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 2:30 am

    Wouldn't a newspaper headline require a verb, and generally just one verb? That reduces the number of possible parsings from 64 to 6.

  30. D.O. said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 3:19 am

    Nice joke, but really there are no grammatically correct interminable strings of verbs in English. Counterexamples include interminable (or close to that) strings of auxiliary verbs, but not every verb can be used for the purpose. Add to that that in headlinese separate actions are separated by commas and we have: if may is the verb there is another verb and 4 nouns (5 possibilities), otherwise may is noun and there are 5 more possibilities.

    Oops, have not processed what peter wrote. He was there first!

  31. Paul Kay said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 4:02 am

    There's quite a lot that can be said about conscious strategies for getting the right parse and almost all of it has already been said. About the only remaining thing I can think of is that the only candidate for an auxiliary would be 'may', and, if were, either the next word 'axes' would have to be its main-verb complement or all the stuff between it and the word that was its main-verb complement would have to constitute a single noun phrase subject (of an inverted clause, such as a yes-no question). And each of these possibilities can be quickly eliminated as making no sense. (Also, capitalized Labour can first be eliminated as a candidate for a verb, as mentioned.) Now, like many other commenters, including many other Americans who know nothing of British political news, I got it quickly. I do not remember being aware of using any of these rational strategies, but I wonder to what extent I might have used any of them below the level of awareness. Have others who got it any recollection of how they got to it?

  32. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 5:16 am

    "Wouldn't a newspaper headline require a verb, and generally just one verb?"

    Not necessarily, thought broadsheets tend to have at least one verb.

    I had no problem parsing this, but I suspect that it's because as an Anglophone but only somewhat American person, "Labour" in a headline always signifies a political party to me. I would normally only parse it as a verb if there were no alternative.

  33. Daniel said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 6:57 am

    This one from Asia Times Online today: "Taiwan seals trade hug with mainland"
    (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China_Business/LG01Cb01.html).

    I was expecting a piece with some adorable animal photos.

  34. John Cowan said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    Stephen Jones: If a road is one-way, it's one-way for everyone, so why mention trucks?

  35. Ellen K. said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    I think D.O. in the first two words of his post may have hit upon something key.

  36. Mr Punch said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    American, not aware of May — but no problem. This is an interesting example of of a notionally ambiguous headline that is pretty clear to readers with no special knowledge.

  37. Robert Coren said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    Hmm. Without any background at all, I had no trouble reading this as saying that somebody surnamed May had revoked a pledge made by (someone in the) Labour party that had something to do with police patrols. I'm having a hard time imagining what else such a headline might mean; yes, i understand that each word has some other possible meaning, but I can't come up with any other plausible construction.

  38. Neal Goldfarb said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    ONE WAY TRUCKS DO NOT ENTER

    What's great about this one is that there are so many different parses that are grammatical and aren't total gibberish:

    'This is a one-way road; trucks must not enter it.'

    'This is a one-way road; [I assert that] trucks never enter it.'

    'Trucks of the one-way variety are forbidden to enter.'

    '[I assert that] trucks of the one-way variety never enter.'

    'Trucks of the one-way variety perform actions as opposed to entering.' (Compare "Those that can, do; those that can't, teach."

    'It is not the case that trucks of the one-way variety do [some contextually implied act]. [You are hereby instructed to] enter.'

    'As the first item in what will be a series of items in which each item is preceded by a numeral indicating its place in the series, I hereby order trucks of the "way" variety not to enter.'

    'As the first item in what will be a series of items in which each item is preceded by a numeral indicating its place in the series, I hereby assert that trucks of the "way" variety never enter.'

  39. Ed said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    Here is another one, from the Baseball Musings blog:

    "Cardinals Big Guns Down Diamondbacks"

    This isn't really that bad, and I'm a baseball fan, but I'll admit that I first read "Big" as a noun, not an adjective, and "Guns" as a verb, not a noun. This leads to a meaning that is similar to the intended meaning, but which just has a different feel.

    The citation is here: http://baseballmusings.com/?p=53939

  40. Jeff R. said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

    @Neal:

    Also "This is one manner in which trucks do not enter."

  41. Stephen Jones said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

    Stephen Jones: If a road is one-way, it's one-way for everyone, so why mention trucks?

    Because trucks won't be able to make a U-turn if necessary.

  42. Chas Belov said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 1:22 am

    Before looking, I'll guess that "May" is a surname, "axes" is the verb, and that "Labour police" is a noun phrase acting as an adjective to modify the noun phrase "beat pledge."

  43. Tyler said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    Not being British, I found this one of the toughest crash blossoms on LL so far.

    My initial parse of the beginning was May as a proper noun, but referring to the month of may, axes as a verb, and Labour as the proper noun referring to the party.

    My initial parse of the end was police as a noun, and beat as a verb modifying pledge.

    So I wanted to read it as "The events of May hurt the Labour party, and also some group of police were able outperform a previous pledge of theirs". But that's clearly not what it says, or there would be a semicolon between the third and fourth words, and it wouldn't be a very specific headline besides.

    I think the main thing that confounded me was the phrase "police beat". I know what a "beat" is in relation to the police, but I don't think that the specific noun phrase "police beat" is something that I'd ever use in conversation (instead, the rest of the sentence would probably make it clear that I was talking about the police or a police officer, and "beat" would need no qualifier). So I didn't even register "police beat" as a possible parse, which obviously made the headline impossible to evaluate.

  44. Alexandra said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    @Daniel: I'm still laughing about this one! Is "hug" often used in this context?

    @Ed: After reading it a dozen times, I'm still not sure I have it right. Is "down" the verb here?

  45. Frans said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 7:43 am

    Perhaps there was some subconscious confusion, but my immediate reading is someone named May (though probably not James May :P) axes (gets rid of) a pledge regarding the "police beat," which sounds like some kind of thing from '50s movies (beat cops, that kind of thing). The only reason I spent more time on it than the original fraction of a second was that it was posted here, so I was trying to parse it another way that might be meaningful. I failed at that, save for some strange interpretation that an anthropomorphized month May (i.e. events in May) axed the pledge, and reading the article (particularly the new headline) confirms that I was correct.

    @Tyler:

    Not being British, I found this one of the toughest crash blossoms on LL so far.

    It's amusing how perceptions can differ. :) Crash blossoms with two readings that make sense are what I consider the hardest type of crash blossom I suppose. I think saying "police-beat pledge" should largely alleviate potential parsing problems in this one.

  46. Frans said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 8:01 am

    @Alexandra: That's my reading, though my first reading was Big as a proper noun, i.e. a (nick)name of a player for the Cardinals, or perhaps big as a real or metaphorical giant of football (seems less likely, but I'm not really into American sports slang – I do know that the big/major leagues could be the bigs). Then I thought big guns made more sense together, which combined with the article would make Adam Wainwright and Albert Pujols the big guns. I think my real or metaphorical giants reading would only make sense if the headline were "Cardinals Bigs Gun Down Diamondbacks," and there is clearly no mention of a single player (nick)named Big, although that could still be implied to those in the know. But it'd be weird to refer to one guy nicknamed Big in the headline while consequently talking about two guys in the article.

    I just realized that my metaphorical big could also be ironically referring to Dontrelle Willis, at least if he plays for the Diamondbacks. Though in that case I'd expect the article to focus more on his failings.

    So yeah, I'm certainly sticking to the big guns (Adam & Albert) securing the 8-0 victory.

  47. Chris Travers said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

    I recently saw a crash blossom:

    "Washington County Sheriff's deputy shoots, kills man with knife"

    At first I thought it was about a deputy who shot a man then killed him with his knife……

  48. Ben Edwards said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    I think we need to host an event to raise awareness of crash blossoms, in which we read various articles regarding crash blossoms. I've already written a press release for the event, headlined:

    Confusing Article Reading Headlines Reading Confusing Article Headlines Article Reading

  49. Edwin said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    A nice one from the BBC: "China 'rocket farmer' wins cash in demolition dispute" (from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia_pacific/10565868.stm )

    At first I thought "how do you farm rockets?", then realised that rocket was actually a plant. But it turns out that "rocket farmer" means "farmer who fired rockets at people".

  50. Chad said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

    Yeah, while it's true that each of those words has multiple potential meanings, the meaning of the headline is still pretty clear. I even correctly surmised immediately upon viewing it that "May" was a person's name.

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