Crash blossom du jour

« previous post | next post »

A crash blossom, you'll recall, is an infelicitously worded headline that leads the reader down the garden path. Here's a fine example from today's Associated Press headlines:

McDonald's fries the holy grail for potato farmers

(Hat tip: Stephen Anderson via Larry Horn.)


  1. Bobbie said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    Can't wait to taste the new item: Fried Holy Grail! You want to supersize that for me, please?

  2. Terry Collmann said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    It would be as bad in British English: "McDonald's chips the Holy Grail". That wouldn't be covered by your household insurance …

  3. Bill Walderman said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

    I wonder whether English-language headlines in English aren't particularly prone to crash blossoms, given that (1) noun and verb inflections in English are minimal, which allows many words to function as both nouns and verbs, and (2) the plural noun marker happens to be the same as the 3rd pers. singular present verb marker. The English-language headline style that allows the the copula to be omitted doesn't help, either.

    [(bgz) I think you're on to something. Certainly those factors are at work in crash blossoms of the "British Push Bottles Up German Rear" variety.]

  4. Sili said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    "Their progeny"? Is that even legal?

  5. smably said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    Here's a crash blossom I just spotted in my RSS:
    "Suspect in cemetery beating death surrenders"

    The suspect was beating death in a cemetery before he surrendered? Or is he still in the cemetery, beating "death surrenders", whatever those may be?

  6. Amy Reynaldo said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    I'm going to start using "fries the holy grail" in lieu of "trips the light fantastic."

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    The wonderful thing about this is that the corporate name is derived from a possessive. When McDonald's is read as a noun in the possessive case (I really want to say genetive here) fries is the subject. When read as a corporate name, it is in the nominative case, so McDonald's is the subject (fries being the verb).

    The ambiguity creates the crash. A whole category of crash blossoms surely results from corporate identities formed in this manner.

    Cf: "Jeff's brother's fries . . ." No such ambiguity exists.

    On a side note, it amuses me that in the rural area where my employer exists, inhabitants like to genetivize all corporate identities, at least when doing so is not outright dissonant: e.g., "There's 'plums' on sale at Walmart's."

  8. fs said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    How about "McDonald's's"? Viable?

  9. Ken Brown said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    > "There's 'plums' on sale at Walmart's."

    Same over here, and I've no reason to think its rural.

    Looking at Google "tesco's have" and "tesco's are" each get about 2500 hits and "tesco's is" 6300 hits

    Not huge numbers but I'm sure there are many more than that. Just searching for "tesco's" gets over half a million, but at least some of them are "Tesco's {something belongng to the company}"

  10. Lance said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    Semantic Compositions wrote about restaurant apostrophes a few years back; "Wal-mart's" and "Tesco's" fall into that pattern even if they're not restaurants (see the comments on the aforelinked post). I think it's not as rural as y'all think; it seems fairly widespread.

  11. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    >>I think it's not as rural as y'all think; it seems fairly widespread.

    Mea culpa. I've been in the stix for so long, I sometimes assume incorrectly that every new oddity is related to that. Some kind of snobbery or -ism, no doubt.

  12. Nathan Myers said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    I interpret "McDonald's fries" here the same as "Walmart prices", not requiring another possessive. But assuming we needed one, and taking the corporation as plural as seems popular in England, would it be McDonald'ss'?

    I'm with Sili: potato researchers sending their progeny to be fried in place of their product seems unlikely. I wonder, too, about "irks". Are they really irked, or just frustrated? Vexed, maybe, or confounded?

  13. Stan Carey said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    Not only does the headline lead us up the garden path, it also seems weirdly transgressive, in sweeping so swiftly from corporation to religious icon to potato farmers.

    Lorraine Woodward investigated what she calls the supermarket s-form: "the apparent phenomenon of adding an s to the end of supermarket names where there is not one present in orthographic representation". Her dissertation, submitted to Lancaster University in 2004, is available at the bottom of this page (in multiple files). It's an interesting study.

  14. Daniel Mellis said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    Do crash blossoms include both sentences with an amusing unintended reading, like the one above, and ones that fool the reader into trying to parse it in an impossible way like "3 Missing After Waves Hit Maine Located"?

    They both are forks in the road but the latter has a dead end and the former doesn't.

    Even if people want to call both "Crash Blossoms" it would be useful to have another word or qualifier to distinguish them.

  15. ø said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    I have wondered about the restaurant chain that I call interchangeably Friendly or Friendly's: which does it call itself? A look at their website seems to show that the answer is not simple. The restaurants are definitely Friendly's restaurants, but they are creatures of the Friendly Ice Cream Corporation. Furthermore, based on the location of the "registered trademark" mark — R in circle — I believe that in the word "Friendly's" only the first eight letters are trademarked. I am guessing that the 's is a case of "since they're calling us that anyway, we might as well write it that way on the sign'.

    Somewhat related peeves:

    Chain of restaurants called Cheddar's Pizza. (a) Never heard of anyone named Cheddar, (b) wrong cheese for pizza.

    Names like "Wilson's Florist". Wilson is the florist (old sense), but clearly florist (new sense) = flower shop. Would I like "Wilson's Florist's" better?


  16. ø said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

    (ignore final C)

  17. Dan T. said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    There was a Friendly('s) restaurant near me when I was a kid, and I seem to recall its sign just saying "Friendly", but when I see one of those places nowadays it has "Friendly's", so I guess they did surrender to "what people are calling it".

    I've seen people insert a bogus apostrophe in Sears (which is not a possessive, being the last name of the co-founder, and part of the longer corporate name "Sears Roebuck & Co.") as "Sear's".

  18. Pazi said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

    "Frying the Holy Grail": The act of generating crash blossom.

  19. Mark Liberman said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

    Here's another one — Walter Pincus, "Leaks Questions Slow Reporter Shield Law", WaPo, 9/19/2009. Because, as we don't need Mr. Leaks to tell us, a slow reporter shield law is no reporter shield law. (Hat tip to Cecil VanDevender.)

  20. Stan Carey said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    The headline now reads: "Potato farmer holy grail: McDonald's french fries".

    [(bgz) Did the AP buckle under crash blossom scrutiny? In any case, the original headline can still be found on sites hosted by ABC News, Fox News, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Las Vegas Sun, the San Diego Union-Tribune, etc.]

  21. Słowosław said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:20 am

    At first I found it strange that the people who work in Tesco say "thank you for shopping at Tescos" (as opposed to "Tesco"), but adding an s at the end of a shop name seems to be very common in the UK. There are a lot of shops for which it never occurs, however, e.g. Costcutter, Co-op, Ikea.

  22. Amy Reynaldo said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    It's a Chicago thing to call a Jewel food store "the Jewel's," and Soldier Field is called "Soldier's Field" by locals. Using both S'ed terms is a a solid marker of someone who's lived in Chicago for a long time. (But other businesses/places here don't take an errant S.)

  23. Jeff DeMarco said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    Here's one that just came up on Flickr:

    "Italy, cantering"

  24. Bill Walderman said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    Another aspect of English that contributes to the proliferation of crash blossoms in English-language headlines–as well as to the general phenomenon of garden path sentences, of which crash blossoms are a subspecies–is the ability of nouns to function as attibutives (coupled with the fact that, unlike German spelling, English spelling usually doesn't require an attibutive noun to be linked to the head noun without a space). If the head noun can also function as a verb, semantic disaster looms.

    Also, the frequent omission of determiners in English-language headllines is another factor that may contribute to crash blossoms.

  25. dr pepper said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 12:02 am

    Some scholars have claimed that the legend of the Holy Grail was influenced by pre christian celtic legends about magical cauldrons. Some produced abundant food, others conferred heroic attributes. So i can see a proto arthurian saga in which ambitious parents deliberately drop their infant into such a vessel in hopes of creating a future knight champion.

  26. Mongoose said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    Surely this could be most felicitously repaired by a single colon after the word "fries"?

  27. Charles McElwain said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    Another one, from the July 6th edition of the Louisiana Weekly. The print edition had this CB on the page 6 continuation page headline:

    "Racial profiling is still persuasive"

    The front page start of the article had the headline

    "Racial profiling is still pervasive"
    (The article was about an ACLU report released around that date.)

    The web edition, not having continuation headlines, didn't reproduce this error.

  28. greg said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 8:01 am

    Late to the party here, but Dead babies found in Berlin flat

RSS feed for comments on this post