Crash blossom of the week

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When Bob LeDrew sent in the headline "Other medical isotope cuts wait in Ottawa", I figured that it really meant something like "earlier attempts to cut spending on medical isotopes may not be enough, and so the Canadian national government has contingency plans to reduce expenditures further", while allowing the humorous misinterpretation that an alternative choice of isotope is reducing delays in the capital city.

But I was wrong, as the article's opening shows:


  1. möngke said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 6:09 am

    It seems amazing to me that "other" could be easily replaced by "alternative" to remove almost all ambiguity. It's almost as if headline writers are aiming to produce crash blossoms. It may be becoming something like its own kind of poetry, one where quality is measured by the maximum possibilities for ambiguous reading.

  2. Nicki said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 6:32 am

    I like it when my first reading is the correct one :o)

  3. Nick Lamb said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 6:35 am

    I suspect the standard of editing for this article not very good.

    “Wider use depends on the availability of PET scanners, proximity to cyclotrons — because since the isotopes decay quickly — and cost.”

    I think either "because" or "since" is redundant in that sentence. I also get a bit of a sense that the reporter is out of their depth because this surely isn't very clear to the average reader – unless cyclotrons and the nature of nuclear decay are already present in the local news context?

  4. Nicholas Waller said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    If this is the only place that story was published by this organisation, shortage of headline space wouldn't appear to have been a reason for using "other" over "alternative" (they might have have put "new", if it was a new isotope), and they had room for "waiting list" or "waiting time" instead of "wait".

  5. Johanne D said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    This was much easier to decode for a Canadian, since the shortage of medical isotopes has been in the news for a while.

  6. Andrew Kahn said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    Had the same problem this morning with a headline in the NYTimes: "Medicaid Cut Places States In Budget Blind."

  7. Lynn said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    I think the goal of a headline-writer is get an audience to read the article. Leaving one a little confused does this beautifully.

  8. Tyler said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    I parsed this correctly on first read, but the phrase "medical isotope" still had no meaning to me, so I was left confused until I read on.

  9. unekdoud said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    What about distorting the headline slightly to become "Other medical isotope cuts waits in Ottawa"?
    It's an extra 's', but at least it forces the correct reading (or a more correct reading).
    Another way is to use 'another' instead of 'other' in the sentence.

  10. Rodger C said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    I first read this as, "Other medical isotope cuts bait in Ottawa."

  11. Paul said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    The article's full of ambiguous statements:

    About two thirds of the world demand for technetium-99m isotope

    I had read this line to say that this isotope is demanded by all but a third of the world. Because of the dash, I didn't realize my error until much too late (and chalked it up initially to a stray verb). Nick Lamb points out another error. Seems like careless writing all around to me.

  12. Bill Walderman said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

    This is a classic English English-language crash blossom–it illustrates how English-language headlines are particularly prone to crash blossoms because many words do double duty as both nouns and verbs, and the same inflexional ending serves as both plural and 3rd person singular marker.

  13. Adouma said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    I have never seen "demand for" used, except where demand is a noun. That is, I'd be fine with
    "High demand for medical isotopes is a problem in Canada", or
    "Canadians demand more medical isotopes," but never
    * "Canadians demand for more medical isotopes."
    Is that a regional thing, I wonder, or did you just misread it?

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    Medical isotope switch cuts wait in Ottawa

    would cover it, while retaining plenty of scope for crash blossom.

  15. Paul said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    Omitting the "for" is certainly more grammatical for me, but with the "for" it doesn't sound totally bad either. It could be that I had skipped over that word while reading it as well. On a cursory examination, I only found one recent news story with the usage of "demand for" in a verbal sense: here, so it seems that this is nowhere in common usage yet (and might never be).

  16. Bill Walderman said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 8:17 am

    Do crash blossom headlines occur in languages other than English?

    It strikes me that English-language headlines are particularly prone to crash blossoms because (1) many words function as both nouns and verbs without any special markers distinguishing them, (2) English lacks an extensive system of inflexions, and one of the few inflexional endings is a morpheme that marks both the 3rd person present singular of verbs and the plural of nouns, (3) chains of nouns can be strung together in noun phrases as modifiers to a single head noun and English orthographic convention separates each noun by spaces (as opposed to, e.g., German or Danish, where the nouns are written without spaces) and (4) the headline style, perhaps peculiar to English, of omitting determiners and the copula and using the present tense for both past and present. I suspect that languages with more elaborate inflexional morphology such as French (at least written French) or Russian would not be as prone to crash blossoms.

  17. Alan Hayes said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    I would agree with Johanne D, the reader's familiarity with the context largely removes the ambiguity here. The situation regarding the Chalk River reactor has been a significant news item in Canada for several years now.

    However, CBC News is not a print outlet, at least primarily, so it is a little bit odd that their headline writers should feel constrained by the exigencies of print.

  18. Faith said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    @Alan Hayes–shorter headlines are more effective in RSS feeds. (I happen to get the CBC news this way myself)

  19. DanR said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    I imagine headline-writing is an acquisitional thing. You learn the sub-dialect, and it has its own subtle disambiguating cues.

    One might do a study to see if headline writers themselves more accurately parse headlines in one go than other folk do.

  20. Chad said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    …Wait, so then the "humorous" interpretation turned out to be the correct one? Go figure.

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