Crash blossom roundup

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"Crash blossoms" — those ambiguously phrased headlines that encourage absurd interpretations — are flourishing like never before. Here's a roundup of the latest specimens spotted in the wild.

1. "Matt Cassel trade a simple, cheap bandage for Bills QB problem" (CBS Sports, Mar. 4, 2015)

It might be tempting to read "trade" as a verb, even if it doesn't agree with its ostensible subject, the singular "Matt Cassel." That reading is helped along by the rest of the sentence, since it's of the form "trade X for Y." But no one is trading a bandage for a problem here. Instead, "Matt Cassel trade" (i.e., the trade of quarterback Matt Cassel from the Minnesota Vikings to the Buffalo Bills) is the actual subject, and the predicate (after a deleted copula) gives the writer's opinion that the trade is a simple, cheap bandage for the Bills' quarterback problem. (It would have been more idiomatic to call the trade a "Band-Aid," but perhaps CBS Sports didn't want to get a call from Johnson & Johnson's trademark lawyers.)

(Hat tip, Brett Wilson.)

2. "Doctor Who Helped Harrison Ford After Crash: 'I'm a Big Fan'" (Huffington Post, Mar. 6, 2015 — later revised)

This is only the latest in a long line of "Doctor Who" crash blossoms. Last October, Mark Liberman posted the chyron, "Doctor Who Tested Positive for Ebola Took Subway, Went Bowling in Brooklyn." That was a few days after a commenter noted "Doctor Who Discovered Ebola In 1976 Fears 'Unimaginable Tragedy'." A few others:

With some of these examples, you can start with the "Doctor Who" reading and then realize you went down the garden path when you hit a second verb ("fears," "faces," "gets"). It's a purer crash blossom if that verb never comes, which can happen because of a deleted copula ("[is] in jail"), or as in the Harrison Ford example, when there's a missing "said" represented by the colon before the quote. 

(Hat tip, Dierk Haasis.)

3. "Boeheim taunted by fans, mum after loss" (ESPN.com, Mar. 7, 2015, later revised)

This headline appeared when Syracuse men's basketball coach Jim Boeheim, after his team's season ended with a loss at North Carolina State, was taunted by NC State fans and then remained quiet by skipping the traditional postgame news conference. Once again, copula deletion comes into play, since "[is] taunted by fans" and "[is] mum after loss" are supposed to be read as conjoined predicates. Instead, it's possible to read "fans" and "mum" as conjoined objects of "taunted by." "Mum" is a chiefly British English word for "mother," but the dialectal mismatch just makes it even sillier.

(Hat tip, UrsusMaritimus.)

4. "Public urged to keep track of squirrels with mobiles" (The Press & Journal, Scotland, Mar. 11, 2015)

This one hinges on good ol' attachment ambiguity. Because of what Arnold Zwicky calls "the lure of low attachment," it's tempting to read the prepositional phrase "with mobiles" as attaching directly to "squirrels," rather than understanding that it modifies the entire VP "keep track of squirrels." For other recent crash blossoms along these lines, see Mark Liberman's trio of posts: "Attachment ambiguity of the day" (1/30/15), "PP attachment ambiguity of the week" (2/14/15), and "Oscar crash blossom" (2/23/15).

(Hat tip, Bonnie Taylor-Blake.)

5. "How Exactly Does an Elder Abuse Investigation Work?" (Slate, Mar. 13, 2015)

There's no elliptical headlinese in this one, but it's still prone to ambiguity, especially when it appears as above, with a line break after the word "elder." You might think the question is how an elder abuses investigation work, when the real question being addressed is how an elder abuse investigation works.

How exactly does [an elder] abuse [investigation work]?  
vs.
How exactly does [an [elder abuse] investigation] work?

(Hat tip, Jacob Stulberg.)

That should be enough to tide you over while you wait for the release of the debut album from The Crash Blossoms, a contemporary acoustic group out of East Yorkshire.



27 Comments

  1. Lance said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

    Oh, if I'd known a Crash Blossom collection post was coming up, I would have sent in http://www.buzzfeed.com/stephanieanderson/natalia-kills-her-career#.huXkN18Eqq"X Factor" Judge Natalia Kills "Bullied" Contestant, Gets Turned Into A Meme. For a non-Kiwi like me, I got seriously concerned that Judge Natalia had killed a bullied contestant. Perhaps for people in New Zealand, it's obvious that Natalia Kills (not her real name) bullied a contestant.

  2. chips mackinolty said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

    While I love crash blossoms, I wonder how many of them arise because of the US (and increasingly international in the English language) use of initial caps in headlines?

    All the ambiguities disappear if the headers state "Doctor who" rather than the Time Lord "Doctor Who". Time Lord obviously has initial caps, as it is a title. Unless there is more than one of them in a single point in time, in which case time lords is fine.

  3. JS said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

    ESPN recently had an article link reading "Manning signature concretes return."

  4. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 6:03 pm

    "… are flourishing like never before"

    If this wasn't Language Log I'd suspect the Recency Illusion, but as it is I'll take it on trust that BZ has been counting!

  5. TonyK said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 6:07 pm

    Either crash blossoms are not what they used to be, or I am learning from all these Language Log examples. I didn't find any of these problematic. Does anybody else find that they are crashing fewer blossoms these days?

  6. Bathrobe said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

    Agree with TonkyK.

  7. maidhc said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 2:18 am

    San Francisco police shoot dead woman who drove car at officers

    I think some similar examples ere posted a while ago.

  8. pjharvey said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 2:26 am

    Shouldn't 'elder abuse' be hyphenated to avoid ambiguity in this case?

    'Elder abuse investgation' and 'elder-abuse investigation' can have different meanings.

  9. RP said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 3:48 am

    @chips,
    I had the same thought. Hardly any British newspapers use Title Case for their headlines, nor does the BBC. Nor do British magazines such as the New Statesman, Spectator, or Economist.

  10. Rakau said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 3:52 am

    @Lance
    Yes. In Aotearoa/New Zealand there was no crash blossom with the "Natalia Kills" headline. We are a small country and Ms Kills' appearances on X-Factor were fairly well known before the incident that lead to her demise. We have some interesting headlines here with a Prime Minister surnamed Key and the Leader of the Opposition being surnamed Little.

  11. rosie said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 4:32 am

    3 goes against familiar English syntax by deleting not only the "is" from each predicate, but also the "and" which should conjoin them. I think "Boeheim, taunted by fans, is mum after loss" would be easier to understand.

  12. Jen said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 4:48 am

    I thought that Matt Cassel must be a (chain of) shop(s) selling some kind of bandage, but I had no idea what a Bills QB problem was beyond a vague connection with money.

  13. Faldone said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 5:51 am

    Rumors that Cervantes had been lost again put to rest.

  14. Sister_Ray said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 10:02 am

    Crash blossom of the day from the Daily Mail website:

    "New mother Zoe Saldana shows off trim figure just three months after welcoming twins while hiking with husband"

  15. Chris said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 11:04 am

    @RP: And yet in the USA, everyone I run across who is not an editor reacts with horror to the very existence of sentence-case headlines. They simply don't believe any educated person would ever *not* use title case.

  16. Don said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

    I'm going to be that guy and point out that the character's name is technically "the Doctor," not "Doctor Who." (Not that that really detracts from the crash blossom.)

  17. Steve said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

    The only headline that was ambiguous to me was the "mum" one. I think this is because I pretty much only encounter "mum" as in "silent" in certain, fairly specific, constructions: mum's the word, keep[ing] mum, and stay[ing] mum. (Another synonym, such as "remain", would work too.)

    Any other "mum" (for silent) use would be odd and even nonidiomatic, and thus a bit confusing, to me: if somebody said, "I tried to chat with Roger, but he was mum," I wouldn't think that Roger = mom, but I would have a moment of thinking "Roger was what?" and I would also wonder if the speaker meant "numb" (a bit of an odd choice, semantically, but more idiomatic than "he was mum", at least in my idiolect).

    Conversely, a mom publicly taunting her own son is unusual but not totally unheard of, and the oddness of it would make it newsworthy, so the mum=mom reading was actually the primary one for me. It took me some work to dig up the "silent" meaning, to be honest.

  18. Steve said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

    FWIW, I was beginning to wonder if expectation to find "mum" adjacent to "keep", or something similar, was just a peculiarity my half-diseased brain had invented.

    FWIW, the dictionary.com entry for "mum" has "to keep mum" as an illustration of the defintion, and, in the three sample sentences, two involve "keep mum", while the other example (amusingly) is a mistaken entry in which "mum" actually means "mom". So I don't think the expectation to see something like "keep mum" (vs. something like "Bob is mum") is purely an invention of mine.

    Though the defintion also doesn't say "usually preceded by 'keep'" or anything like that, so it isn't exactly a rule either.

  19. Steve said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 3:15 pm

    Sigh. I Relied on a misleading iPhone view of dictionary.com. I now see that Dictionary.com's layout does not distinguish between the sample sentences for mum as in mom vs. mum as in silent, and that it has 10 example sentences. Three involve mum as in mom. Of the seven where mum = quiet, six involve either "keep mum" or "keeping mum", and one involves "remain mum". But this still supports my gut reaction that it is a bit unusual to use "mum" as in silent without "keep" or "remain" or something similar.

  20. Harry said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 7:59 pm

    What about Slate's recent 'D.C. Kids Defy Cops, Congress to Take Forbidden Sled Rides on Capitol Hill'?

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 20, 2015 @ 6:41 am

    I think it's true that 'mum' for 'silent' is generally used only with 'keep', but its wider use seems to be recognised headlinese. Another notable headline produced by this was 'Bush Mum on Pakistan's Bin Laden Search', which did lead some readers to wonder 'What's Barbara doing searching for Bin Laden?'.

  22. Mr Punch said,

    March 20, 2015 @ 4:33 pm

    The squirrel one is pretty bad, but actually clear enough; the others did not throw me in the least.

  23. Robert Ayers said,

    March 20, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

    "Woman Revived After Hospital Visitors Inject Her With Drugs"

    I expected an artcle about heroic visitors who acted when doctors/nurses were absent.

    But true story is that two visitors gave her [opiate] injection and staff found her unconsicious and revived her.

    http://www.sfgate.com/news/crime/article/Woman-revived-after-hospital-visitors-inject-her-6147438.php

  24. Nathan Myers said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 2:31 am

    I thought it was a tradition among newspaper headline editors to deliberately invent headlines containing strained puns and subject to misreadings, because it attracts curiosity, lets them show off, amuses astute readers, and helps pass the time. The only argument against it arises from delusions of respectability or responsibility.

  25. Brian Collins said,

    March 25, 2015 @ 6:21 am

    My favourite research report title (from when I used to catalogue these things) – Pollution as a Result of Fish Cultural Activities (EPA R3-73-009)

  26. Chuck Gordon said,

    March 25, 2015 @ 9:20 am

    "Man accused of standing naked in door to get counseling"

    To be fair, the story actually comes from TV news.

    http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/community/news-alliance/wbtv-news/article16183106.html

  27. Rose Fox said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

    This example from 9/13/2014 just crossed my Twitter feed: "Patrick Stewart Surprises Fan with a Life Threatening Illness!"

    http://pic.twitter.com/M1yPI7nvDV

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