Trailing modifiers can be dangerous

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Lamiat Sabin, "Man rattled by python found coiled up and hiding in his box of cornflakes", The Independent 3/9/2015.

A man claims to have had a real-life kitchen nightmare after he saw a long coiled-up snake poke its head out of his box of cereal.

Jarred Smith, 22, was making lunch on Tuesday when he spotted the two-metre diamond python hiding inside the open cornflakes package – according to the Daily Telegraph in Australia.

Yuxi Liu writes:

I thought it meant a man was so rattled by python that he coiled up in his box of cornflakes.
I hope this can provide some laughs on Language Log.

Obligatory screenshot:


  1. Y said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

    Cornsnakes. They go snake, rattle and pop.

  2. ThomasH said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

    Man, rattled by python, found …..

  3. Theophylact said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 4:21 pm

    Whenever I trail a modifier, I'm vewwy, vewwy careful.

  4. Guy said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

    Of course, this is only likely in headlinese. As a non-abbreviated clause, we would have either "A man was rattled by a python (that was/that he/which was/which he/0) found in his box of cornflakes" or "A man (who was/that was/0) rattled by a python was found in his box of cornflakes". This could still potentially create ambiguity as a noun phrase rather than a clause, but it's a very unlikely noun phrase, and the alternations I indicated above could be used to disambiguate. I suppose "A man that found and was rattled by a python in his cereal box" also works.

    I noticed, in considering other rephrasing a, that there is a difficulty in expressing this with embedded relatives, because the reciprocal or circular relationship: consider "a man that a python that was found in his cereal box rattled", where the "his" seems forbidden to my intuition. But I don't have a problem with the "his" in "A man who was rattled by a python found in his cereal box" (under either the intended or humorous interpretation. One possibility is that the unnecessary "postponing" of verbs in the first creates an awkwardness that I wrongly blame on "his". Another possibility is that "his" is somehow impermissibly resumptive in the first but not the second, perhaps because "who" (or the relative gap) is in subject position, and so precedes the "him". I suppose another possibility is that there really is a problem with "A man [who was rattled by a python found in his cereal box]", with the interpretation that the bracketed phrase is a relative clause, and it just is slipping past my radar.

  5. Guy said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 4:58 pm

    Further constructions for consideration –
    a man who loves his children
    a man whose children love him
    *a man his children love
    *a man whose children he loves


    ?/*a man whose children I sent to meet him

    (where my judgments are with respect to the interpretation in which "he"/"his" refers to the referent of the entire noun phrase, not to some earlier mentioned referent – are these judgments noncontroversial?). It seems that the personal pronoun may refer to the entity being selected by the entire noun phrase (even though it hasn't been selected yet!), but only if the gap or relative phrase is the subject – I don't think my last example is really acceptable, it seems to me a clear example of a resumptive pronoun, but I don't think I've noticed the subject exception before (unless I once knew it and then forgot it).

  6. Guy said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

    I suppose for parallelism my third example should have been:

    *a man whom his children love

  7. Mara K said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 5:18 pm

    But pythons don't have rattles!

    All joking aside, I didn't see the unintended meaning till it was pointed out. In my head it's more likely for a snake to be "coiled up" than a man.

  8. Emilio Márquez said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

    Next headline:

  9. maidhc said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

    Pythons don't have rattles. Now a rattlesnake could have given him a good rattle, except they don't have rattlesnakes in Australia.

  10. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 6:32 pm

    There's a bit of a garden path in "a two-metre diamond python", which I first read as "a two-metre-diameter python". Which, come to think of it, fits pretty well with the ginormous box of cornflakes I was already picturing.

  11. Stephen Hart said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 7:08 pm

    Is it just chance that the photo includes a newspaper headline featuring "Drunken… Booze"?

  12. Matt said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 7:37 pm

    Of peripheral linguistic interest (perhaps more relevant to sociology) is the fact that the only legible words on the newspaper in the foreground are "DRUNK" and "BOOZE." Straya!

  13. Jakob said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

    More importantly: cornflakes for lunch?

  14. Graeme said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 9:44 pm

    Leftover from breaky, as we say down under. He might just've noticed a 2m snake crawling around had it happened as he prepared his lunch. Depending on how much booze he'd had… Diamond Pythons and their mates the more tropical Carpet Pythons regularly live in ceilings, and keep rodents at bay. This fella probably woke late (its notionally winter here) and slithered down on the morning for his own breaky.

  15. Rodger C said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 8:01 am

    Guy, I find nothing unacceptable with your starred sentences, except "a man whose children he loves," where "he" seems to be some mysterious third party.

  16. Suzanne Miller said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 8:11 am

    Jarred Smith? Not Boxed Smith?

    [(myl) The original article in the Sydney paper has "Jarred". Dunno about Oz, but in the U.S., there were 498 babies named Jarred born in 2000, compared to 7321 named Jared.]

  17. Neal Goldfarb said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 9:31 am

    Man seen by horse raced past the barn fell.

  18. Robert Coren said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 9:42 am

    One thing that I thought when I read the article was "how in the world would a two-metre snake fit in a cornflakes box?" But I see from the photo that it's just possible, assuming that there are no more cornflakes in the box (did the snake eat them?).

    And put me in the camp of people who think the most natural reading of the headline is that the man was in the box, which is ruled out only because of its improbability.

  19. K Chang said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 11:31 am

    Does the title become acceptable if you remove "found"?

  20. Mirielle said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    Here's another example (the caption of a photograph posted on the Web on 24 August 2015):

    "A pedestrian walks past electronic signs displaying pictures of China's Politburo Standing Committee members at a subway station in downtown Shanghai June 18, 2013."

    You cannot tell from the photograph whether the signs or the members of the Committee are "at a subway station."

  21. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

    Once aboard the train, a lucky few might become Sitting Committee members; the rest will be relegated to Straphanging Committee members.

  22. Guy said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 6:10 pm

    @Rodger C

    It's possible that I was thinking about the different permutations so hard that I was biasing my judgments. The starred sentences don't seem so bad today as I thought yesterday. I suppose it would be better to use a corpus rather than my intuition, but that's not as fun as expressing knee-jerk opinions.

  23. Viseguy said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

    I'd say that "Snake in cereal: " clears up any ambiguity in what follows.

    That said, I would happily coil up and hide in a cereal box if a python were anywhere else in my kitchen.

  24. Matt said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 7:57 pm

    The problem is that "Snake in cereal:" could also mean that the rest of the headline is a paraphrase of what the snake itself had to say about this story.

  25. Awkward Words said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 8:31 pm

    This is great! I like this one: The library has several books about dinosaurs in our school.

  26. David Morris said,

    August 25, 2015 @ 3:20 am

    Of course, you haven't told us the whole story, because it's a cereal. Tune in for the next exciting episode …

  27. ngamudji said,

    August 25, 2015 @ 3:15 pm

    There was another "snake in a container" story in the papers the following day. This one was about a red-bellied black snake which got its head caught in a can of bourbon and coke:

    Unlike the python in the corn flakes, red-bellied black snakes are venomous. Their bite is not usually fatal to humans, though it can be. Especially when they're drunk.

  28. seriously said,

    August 25, 2015 @ 6:52 pm

    Notice the photo caption: "The cardboard box had to be cut open to get the huge diamond python out." There's no linguistic question here, but there is a practical one: Why would you want to get the huge diamond python out?

  29. ryan said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 11:35 pm

    "A pedestrian walks past electronic signs displaying pictures of China's Politburo standing Committee members at a subway station in downtown Shanghai June 18, 2013"

    My reading – after walking past pictures of the Politburo, the pedestrian stands members of some unspecified committee to drinks at the station.

  30. a a said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

    Subway plans to be rolled out Monday

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