Capping off the spill with a crash blossom

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While we're on the subject of grammatically ambiguous oil spill headlines, Larry Horn sends along a nice crash blossom (via the American Dialect Society mailing list). This morning's USA Today contains the headline:

BP caps ruptured well, but more hurdles remain

Larry writes:

My first thought was that I had watched the news last night and I don't remember seeing anything about the caps rupturing. Then I realized "BP caps" wasn't the subject, "ruptured" wasn't the main verb, and "well" wasn't an adverb. (I suppose if I had thought about it, it would have also occurred to me that it would be harder for a cap to rupture well than for a knee, say, to break cleanly.

We can put "BP caps" in the same file as "SNP signals debate legal threat" and "Google fans phone expectations by scheduling Android event," wherein a noun-verb sequence is easily misparsed as a noun-noun compound ("SNP signals," "Google fans").


  1. whoever said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    Teehee, I read subject-main verb-object… as in BPs new caps accidentally ruptured the oil well.

  2. whoever said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    The rest of my thought process was that : "but more hurdles remain" (implying) before BP finishes destroying the gulf/ocean/world

    Then: That seems a little too childishly sarcastic for even a cynical newspaper in the face of such a catastrophe!

  3. Faldone said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    This one seems like you'd have to have been living in a cave not to understand it immediately. Anybody who has been paying any attention to the news knows that BP has been trying to cap a well and that the well had ruptured. If it were the caps that had ruptured I would expect normal headline syntax to produce "BP caps rupture …"

  4. sarang said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    I agree; I wouldn't even have realized there was an ambiguity there, the only thing that stuck out was "hurdles" which felt like a mixed (or at least, insufficiently dead) metaphor.

  5. blahedo said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    I was going to post something about one-sense-per-discourse making the adverb reading of "well" unlikely in the context of the oil well disaster, but then I thought the comment was too light, skipped it, and moved on.

    The very next page I loaded was BBC news, whose top headline at the moment is "Oil stoppage going well, BP says". So I guess not. :)

  6. Don Sample said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    But there has been some concern that the pressure buildup caused by the capping of the well could cause some of the damaged pipe to rupture in some other place, making the situation even worse, so reading the start of the headline to mean that the cap caused another rupture, isn't unreasonable.

  7. unekdoud said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    I had to backtrack twice to get the intended meaning (even though I already knew the news):

    1. "BP caps have ruptured nicely, but something else is being difficult".
    Instant WTF.
    2. "BP caps have caused a rupture in the well, but more hurdles remain"
    I have no idea what kind of hurdles would be involved.
    3. "BP has capped the ruptured oil-well, …"
    Finally! It doesn't beat the previous examples in complexity, but it's a crash blossom that is more difficult to avoid, since most headlines would contain the word "well", and many of them in precisely this position.

  8. Guest said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    I had to think about it to get anything but the intended meaning. Am I wrong in thinking that headlines almost always use the present tense? Eye balling, I only found "Spy Swap Forced Prosecutors Into Balancing Act" in the past tense w/over 30 present tense, not counting implied verbs or interrogatives.

  9. Danny Bloom said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 2:06 am

    Ben, this is not a CrshBlssm, but a new headline is making the rounds of the Internet now, from a Springfield, Mass. newspaper and webiste (headline writer, George Graham, or mayhe he was just the reporter on the story, but he is getting blamed for this lame, sophomoric headless headline:

    "Springfield Police Charge One-Armed Man With Unarmed Robbery"

  10. The Ridger said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    I think the adverb mitigates against the crash-blossom reading, because I find it difficult to think of "well" being used to describe the rupture of the well cap. "Badly" I can see, or "suddenly", but "well"? That (more than) implies it was the outcome we wanted, doesn't it?

    Also, knowing it's a headline prevents it, as the rest of the syntax (no conjuction, for example) signals that "ruptured" can't be the main verb.

  11. Rodger C said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    @Danny Bloom: Wandering off topic here, but I have to say I immediately thought of the classic NY Daily News headline, "Headless Body in Topless Bar."

  12. John Cowan said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    Guest: Present-tense headlines are used in all normal cases: that is, where the event became news in the current news cycle, typically up to 24 hours before press time (and up to 40 hours or so before you read it). A past-tense head is appropriate when (a) an event happens before the current news cycle, (b) does not become known until the current cycle, and (c) it is the event, not the public knowledge of the event, that makes it news. Naturally, these three conditions don't often co-occur.

  13. Brad said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 2:49 am

    I might have been primed for it, but I had an additional stop over at:
    BP caps (gangster movie slang) [the] ruptured well
    before getting to the intended meaning. A somewhat entertaining image, I suppose.

  14. Dan Scherlis said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 7:31 am

    Another related crashblossom (too soon? OK then it's a crash blossom) from today's NY Times (online):

    "Slide Show: The Mystery of the Dead Sea Turtles"

    Yes, many of you (most?) will have read that correctly the first time, as is true for all our crash blossoms. But for those of wondering what exactly is a "Dead Sea Turtle", here's the teaser:

    "Scientists perform a necropsy on a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that was counted as part of the Gulf of Mexico’s ongoing 'unusual mortality event.'"

    My readiness to interpret the headline as ((dead sea) turtle) rather than the intended (dead ((sea turtle)) might've been enhanced by having immediately-previously read news about Hamas, and thus being in a Dead-Sea-region frame of mind. Or it might just be caffeine deficiency.

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