Dentist fear girl?

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A headline in today's Metro (a UK free newspaper) looks like this:

Dentist fear girl
starved to death

I was taken aback: it looked decidedly ungrammatical for quite a few seconds. And another reader, from Glasgow, has already mailed me to say the same thing. What is wrong with the headline? Or can it be parsed as grammatical?

The answer is not that dentist is the subject of a clause in which fear is the verb. There is no way to account for the lack of either a 3rd person present tense ending -s or a preterite tense ending -ed on fear in that case. And there is no way to read dentist as plural. So it is not about dentists (or a dentist) fearing that a girl starved. That is a wrong turning up the garden path.

The solution is that dentist fear is a compound noun (meaning "fear of dentists") that is being used as an attributive modifier to another noun, girl. The only ungrammaticality (and it's fine in the context of a headline) is the lack of a determiner on the resultant singular noun phrase. The verb of the clause is starved. The story is about a young girl who developed a pathological fear of dentists (hence she could be referred to in headlinese as the dentist fear girl) and refused to open her mouth at all after an operation to remove her milk teeth. She wouldn't eat; the parents' entreaties for medical help or advice went unheeded; and she died of malnutrition. A very sad story given what modern medicine is capable of. But the headline describing it, once you get the right parse, is fully grammatical.

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