The Beeb’s latest crash blossom

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BBC News is a reliable source for the misleading headlines we know as crash blossoms (e.g., here, here, here). The latest comes to us via a Twitter tip from Ben Lillie, who retweeted Mikko Hypponen‘s double-take: “What took down the US drone? Iranian TV shows did! Or maybe I’m misreading this.” Here’s the headline:

Iranian TV shows downed US drone

And here’s the full story, in case you’re still stumped. [Update: Judging from the comments, it’s not much of a stumper.]



25 Comments

  1. Kylopod said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

    It is examples like this that really heighten my suspicion that the headline writers are doing this on purpose.

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    No, I don’t think the headline writers do it on purpose. It’s simply a difference between US and UK culture, as has been pointed out often in these columns. The headline “Iranian TV shows downed US drone” is instantly understandable and wholly unremarkable to UK readers, however much it amuses our US cousins. I wouldn’t even class it as a crash blossom. Just a crash.

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

    I knew right away that no Iranian TV show could have downed one of our drones. Those things are routinely tested against Dancing With the Stars and Anne Coulter.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

    Eric, how does US versus UK headlines have anything to do with it? It’s certainly not a noun pile issue. “Iranian TV” is not a noun pile, and it’s the incorrect reading that has the longer noun phrase to start the headline, “Iranian TV shows”. The ambiguity is in which word is the verb, “shows” or “downed”. How is that not equally ambiguous for UK readers?

  5. BeSlayed said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 9:46 pm

    “Shows” is less likely to be interpreted by UK readers as meaning “program(me)s”.

  6. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    This American got the headline no problem. Perhaps it makes more sense than the alternative.

  7. John Roth said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    I had no trouble with it. I’m not sure whether that’s because I already knew the general topic from other news stories, or whether the alternative interpretation is simply so absurd that it never rose to conscious awareness.

  8. Stuart said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

    “The headline “Iranian TV shows downed US drone” is instantly understandable and wholly unremarkable to UK readers, however much it amuses our US cousins. I wouldn’t even class it as a crash blossom. ”

    This NZE speaker had exactly the same reaction. I had to RE-read it to figure out why it had even been offered as an example of a crash blossom.

  9. Scott Knitter said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

    Would the phrase “TV show” be less often used by speakers of U.K. English than by speakers of U.S. English? My theory is that “TV programme,” “chat show,” or some other specific term would be more often used; therefore, reading “shows” in the headline as a noun would be less likely for U.K. folks. I could be way wrong.

  10. Chris Maloof said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

    The reason why this is a crash blossom is that “TV show” is a very common noun phrase in the US. Do UK readers mainly watch television programmes or something instead, then?

  11. Xmun said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

    @Ellen K.: The ambiguity is in which word is the verb, “shows” or “downed”.

    No real ambiguity, I’d have thought. If a finite verb is included in a newspaper headline, it’s far more likely to be in the present tense than in the past.

  12. Terrence Lockyer said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 12:59 am

    To this South African English speaker, the verb interpretation of “shows” is also the more natural; though I’m sufficiently familiar with the noun usage to see the crash blossom.

  13. Peter Taylor said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 2:31 am

    The interesting thing is the choice of Iranian instead of Iran.

  14. msH said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 2:59 am

    I think the reason it’s unambiguous to me is that “downed” (as a past tense rather than a description of the drone, I don’t know if that’s the right term) isn’t really allowed at all in British Headline Language. If the alternative was what they meant, they could only have written “down”. British headlines are always in a sort of narrative present.

  15. Neil Tarrant said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 4:00 am

    @Peter Taylor:

    I’m a little confused about what you find interesting there? Because it’s not a noun and doesn’t contribute to Headline-ese?

    Surely Iranian is the more grammatical choice (unless the channel is called ‘Iran TV’) – or is this another British/American thing? I’m in the UK and I could see either being used.

  16. LDavidH said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 4:03 am

    @msH: Actulally, if the article is dealing with something in the past which is being investigated, or some new evidence has turned up, then the headline could use the past tense: “Iranian [rather than British] TV shows [rather than missiles] downed US drone [according to…]”. Maybe unusual, but possible.

  17. LDavidH said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    And “actulally” isn’t actually a word, not even in headlinese… Sorry!

  18. Sandy Nicholson said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 4:18 am

    While I could see the crash blossom, the incorrect reading didn’t really jump out at me for reasons noted by others: (a) that ‘TV show’ isn’t so common in the UK (so my first inclination was to treat ‘shows’ as the verb) and (b) that British headlinese wouldn’t normally use past tense.

    But I’m not sure I agree with msH that past tense ‘isn’t really allowed at all’. Narrative present is usual, but if a US drone had already been reported as having been brought down (‘US drone downed in Iran’), a later article might uncover new evidence that it was Iranian TV (rather than the Iranian air force) that downed the aircraft: ‘Iranian TV downed US drones’. Here, narrative present would surely suggest a fresh downing, whereas the use of past tense might well suggest an implicit narrative present: ‘Iranian TV [is found to have] downed US drones [which were reported to have been downed last month]’. Maybe.

    As for ‘Iranian TV’ versus ‘Iran TV’, the latter would sound very odd to me. I don’t know where Peter Taylor is from, but could this be another US/UK difference? Would he say ‘America TV’ or ‘Britain TV’ or ‘France TV’? (‘US TV’ and ‘UK TV’ are obvious exceptions.)

  19. msH said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 6:08 am

    I think that any past-tense headline looks automatically American – compared to “down”, “downed” has two unnecessary letters and therefore doesn’t look like a headline to me. “Not allowed” may be exaggerating, but it seems easily strange enough that I interpret “downed” automatically as descriptive detail rather than the verb. But I don’t know how you’d test my intuition there.

  20. Philip Cummings said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    BBC Radio Ulster regular informs me that certain people involved in litigation “cannot be named for legal reasons”. Does anyone else find this formulation ambiguous? I always find myself asking (myself, mostly), “could they be named for illegal reasons? Could they be named for leisure reasons?” And surely while someone may be referred to as Plaintiff A in open court, their real name has been given to some arm of the law and thus they have been named for legal reasons. I realise what is meant by the formulation is that there is a a legal bar on using the person’s name, but should the BBC be forced to say this if this is what is meant?

  21. Ellen K. said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 11:28 am

    I’m not convinced there’s a difference between British and U.S. headlines as far as likelihood of using the past tense in a headline. The present tense is also the norm for headlines here in the U.S.

    I think the difference is in interpretation of the word “shows”. For Americans, it’s natural to read “TV shows” as a noun phrase; it’s a common phrase. Once we do that, the only way to make sense of the headline (though in an implausible way) is for “downed” to be a verb.

    Where “TV programmes” is the normal phrase, it’s natural to read “shows” as a verb.

    And if, as some suggest, a past tense verb is possible in some situations in headlines, then certainly a past tense verb doesn’t add to the implausibility of the reading that has TV programs downing pilotless airplanes; it’s already quite implausible, even if comprehensible and grammatical.

  22. RP said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    There’s no bar on naming the person generally, only on naming them in connection with the case (and even then the bar is probably only on naming them publicly). You can still refer to them in everyday life.

    I think it is better to stick to the phrase “cannot be named for legal reasons”. The fact that a phrase may technically be ambiguous does not mean it should be avoided in all circumstances.

  23. John said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    Fine to this NYer.

  24. William Ockham said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    I think this is most likely to be seen as a crash blossom by people like me and Mikko Hypponen who have been closely following the drone story. The biggest mystery is how Iran managed to take down the drone. The story being put out by U.S. sources (before the Iranian broadcast) was that the drone had been seriously damaged. Therefore, I was looking for a story that would explain how the drone was taken down and not expecting Iran to show it off. In that context, the headline “Iranian TV shows downed US drone” was hilariously baffling.

  25. StuartB said,

    December 9, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    Well, this Brit did do a double take when I saw the headline on the BBC website. Obviously “TV show” is such a common collocation (in the UK) that one tends to read that as the noun phrase subject, initially confirmed by the fact that the next word, “downed”, looks like the verb in a straightforward NVP sentence.
    On reflection, if the wrong interpretation had been the correct one (if you see what I mean) probably the BBC would have put the last words in quotes, as: ‘Iranian TV shows “downed US drone”‘, conveying the message that this was claimed by Iran, but not necessarily endorsed by the BBC.

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