A black-belt crash blossom

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Posted by Alex Bledsoe on Twitter:

The photo of the news article showed up on Imgur/Reddit a few days ago with the subject line, "That tumour has skills." But the article itself dates back to Dec. 27, 2013, when it appeared in the Daily Express. On the newspaper's website, the article still has the crash-blossom-y headline.

Like many crash blossoms, the reader is taken down the garden path because of the elliptical grammar of headlinese. If you parse the first two words, "Boy paralysed," as elliptical for "Boy is/was paralysed" (with the typical copula deletion of headlinese), then by the time you get to "fights back" you have no choice but to take "tumour" as the subject of that phrasal verb. (The "black belt" then becomes the icing on the absurdist cake.) The correct interpretation requires "boy paralysed" to be read as "boy who was paralysed," with "after tumour" understood as a prepositional phrase. So that's:

[Boy paralysed after tumour] [fights back to gain a black belt]
[Boy paralysed] after [tumour fights back to gain a black belt]

The online version of the headline is a little less prone to the crash-blossom reading because it has "Boy paralysed after tumour" on the first line.

(Hat tip, Dan Clayton.)


  1. bratschegirl said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 9:32 am

    Wouldn't a couple of commas force the correct reading? "Boy, paralyzed after tumour, fights back to gain a black belt"

  2. bratschegirl said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 9:34 am

    Grrr. US English browser setting "helpfully" supplied that z.

  3. William Locke said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 9:37 am

    Though it's more quickly caught/corrected, the first sentence of the article actually sends me down the exact same garden path–"A boy left paralysed after a brain tumor has baffled doctors by making an unexpected recovery…" Just scanning the line, when I hit "has" I had to do a quick double-take and realized I had (once again) assumed "A boy left paralysed" to mean "A boy is left paralysed," which isn't really standard outside of headlinese, so I'm not sure why my brain parsed it that way. Perhaps I was primed by (the incorrect reading of) the headline.

  4. Jen said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 9:47 am

    What about [Boy paralysed after tumour fights back] [to gain a black belt]?

  5. Chris Waigl said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 10:23 am

    The non-headlinese version isn't free of the garden-path either.

    A boy who was paralysed after his tumour fights back to gain a black belt.

    The rescue comes here from the fact that once at the end of the sentence, it's not a complete one if you've gone down the wrong way. Of course, punctuation could help.

  6. Robert Coren said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 10:29 am

    This is interesting; I had to work really hard to get it to read any other way than what was intended.

  7. Nick Dixon said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 10:30 am

    One reason for the confusion is the use of a temporal preposition: "after", when "by" would have done just as well.

    If the headline were instead "Boy paralysed by tumour fights back to gain a black belt" it would make perfect sense.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    I agree that "by" would be better if the tumor did in fact cause the paralysis. But my reading of the article is that the boy was not paralyzed while the tumor was present. The paralysis occurred as a consequence of removing the tumor; thus "paralysed after tumour".

  9. Brett said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    @Nick Dixon: I think the original hed (which I, like Robert Coren, had to struggle with to see the unintended reading) is actually better. The "after" signifies that the tumor has been removed, and the work toward a black is part of his recovery. With your version, I find myself wondering how a paralyzed boy could be doing martial arts at all.

  10. Mara K said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    @Robert me too. And now that I see it, it's still difficult for me to imagine a tumor doing martial arts.

  11. Chris Waigl said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    There might be some dialect thing going on. "Tumour fights back" doesn't seem odd to me as a way of talking about a growth that resists treatment. The black belt part is of course bizarre, then.

  12. Chris Waigl said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 11:41 am

    (Hit "submit" too early — I meant that a tumour that would "fight back" could cause paralysis sounds rather ok to me. Not a great metaphor, but nothing out of the ordinary.)

  13. AB said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

    Brain-Bulge Boy's Black-Belt Bounce-Back!

  14. Robot Therapist said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

    I instinctively read it the "wrong" way.

    In headlines, "after" is very often used in the construction [something happens] after [something happens], so I was led to take "boy paralysed" and "tumour fights back" as the two events.
    And up to that point, it makes sense.
    It's only when we get "…to gain black belt" that it all falls apart.

  15. dw said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    A good advertisement for the power of punctuation. Perhaps British newspapers might reconsider their reluctance to use punctuation in headlines; it takes up very little space.

  16. D.O. said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

    We have so many examples of this crash blossoms that some psycholinguist should measure how much they really confuse anybody. I think this particular example is pretty weak. Or maybe it's not psycholinguistics, but experimental syntax. Anyways, a newspaper publication (with attendant hype and distortions) is guaranteed.

  17. Terry Hunt said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

    I'm not sure that there's much motivation for tabloids to avoid crash-blossoms.

    The purpose of the headline is to encourage the reader to continue reading the copy beneath it. If the headline is, in itself, a perfectly clear 'mini-story' which happens not to be of interest to a given reader, that reader may not read any further – I know I find myself doing this.

    If, on the other hand, the headline by virtue of being garden-path text leads to bewilderment, the reader is likely to have a "Say, what?" moment and read further to clear up his/her bafflement.

    One should also not discount the possibility that some examples are perpetrated deliberately, for amusement. In my days editing an in-house journal for an industrial complex, I experienced powerful temptations to make awful puns in the headlines, and sometimes succumbed.

  18. Yuval said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

    I thought the term "crash blossom" was reserved to cases of categorical ambiguities, where noun pileups lead the reader to guess the wrong verb out of a string of noun/verb dual citizens. Here it is not the case – just a relative clause verb posing as the main verb; all parts-of-speech as they seem to be. So this should be just a "regular" garden path. No?

  19. wally said,

    October 16, 2014 @ 12:14 am

    from todays (10-15) Austin American Statesman

    Kyle man heard popping before emergency landing

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