Another unfortunate crash blossom

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“KOMO headline editor, your phrasing needs work,” tweeted CJ Alexander regarding this deeply regrettable crash blossom (KOMO North Seattle News, July 11, 2012):


As with so many crash blossoms, the elliptical nature of headline-writing is prey to all manner of ambiguity. The elided conjunction and represented by the comma is particularly troublesome here, since it’s not clear what is conjoined. The intended reading (as the lede clarifies) is:

[The] man [who is] charged with impersonating [a] cop [and] raping [a] woman [is] in court today
(and conjoins “impersonating [a] cop” and “raping [a] woman”)

But either of these two interpretations are possible:

[A] man [is] charged with impersonating [a] cop [and] raping [a] woman in court today
(and conjoins “impersonating [a] cop” and “raping [a] woman in court today”)

[A] man [is] charged with impersonating [a] cop [and] [is] raping [a] woman in court today
(and conjoins “[is] charged with impersonating [a] cop” and “[is] raping [a] woman in court today”)

Or, if the comma is not construed as a missing and, it could even be:

[The] man [who is] charged with impersonating [a] cop [is] raping [a] woman in court today

The fact that “raping woman in court today” appears on its own in the second line further encourages these misreadings. It seems like an obvious point, but newsrooms ought to have a standing policy to take extra-special care when editing potentially ambiguous rape-related headlines.

(Via Paul Unwin.)



12 Comments

  1. Jeroen Mostert said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

    I thought replacing “in” with “goes to” would fix it, but it doesn’t — it just makes it weirder, thanks to that damn comma. You need an “a” before “woman” as well.

    KOMO actually has a second news item on this, with headline “alleged cop impersonator charged in rape case pleads not guilty”, which sidesteps the issue at the expense of making it seem like impersonating a police officer is the pertinent crime.

  2. Erik Zyman said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 12:17 am

    One of the first interpretations I got was yet another one, corresponding to the following partial constituent structure:

    Man [[charged with [impersonating cop, raping woman]] in court today]

    and paraphrasable by ‘In court today, a man was charged with impersonating a cop and raping a woman.’ Pragmatically odd, but there you have it…

  3. Army1987 said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 3:04 am

    I hate the use of commas to substitute for and.

  4. Ø said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 6:14 am

    What would be the Britnounpile version?

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 7:30 am

    “Cop impersonator rape suspect appearance today?”

  6. Ellen K. said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    I think adding a comma after “woman” would help greatly.

    Curiously,

    [A] man [is] charged with impersonating [a] cop [and] raping [a] woman in court today

    the wording in the original post for the first of the two possible but incorrect interpretations, does not fix the attachment ambiguity of “in court today”. It’s still ambiguous whether it is (would be) saying the woman was raped today in court, or if the man is simply being charged in court for a rape that occurred and some unstated place and time.

  7. Rod Johnson said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    Oops, “Cop impersonator rape suspect *court* appearance today.”

  8. Erik Zyman said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    @ Ellen K.: or a third possibility, where in court today modifies the entire coordinate structure impersonating [a] cop [and] raping [a] woman—in other words, it was [doing both of those things in court today] that he was charged with.

  9. D Sky Onosson said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

    Interesting that a comma is commonly used to replace and, when we already have a perfectly good single-character symbol that does the same thing, minus the ambiguity.

  10. Felix said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    Or he was charged with impersonating a cop and impersonating a woman who was raping somebody else.

  11. Boris J. said,

    July 22, 2012 @ 4:21 am

    @ D Sky Onosson: I agree! I’ve never quite understood why the English language allows for this use of commas, given that it often leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. French, my native language, does not use commas in this context–we just stick with “and”. That said, the comma is in fact a space-saver because the ampersand takes two characters ([space] + “&”) where a comma only takes one.

    @ Ben Zimmer: Not sure I see a much of a difference between “[A] man [is] charged with impersonating [a] cop [and] [is] raping [a] woman in court today” and “[The] man [who is] charged with impersonating [a] cop [is] raping [a] woman in court today”. Is it just that sentence #2 implies that the man’s identity is previously known to the speaker?

  12. MikeM said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    How about an even more ridiculous interpretation, albeit an unlikely one:

    Man [who has been] charged [along] with [an] impersonating cop, [are both] raping [a] woman in court today

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