Kiwi crash blossom

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The crash blossom of the day comes to us from Rebekah Macdonald via Twitter. This headline appeared on the New Zealand news site

Police chase driver in hospital

Of course, the police didn't chase a driver in a hospital, like some wacky action movie sequence. The subject of the headline is "police chase driver," a compound noun pileup typical of headlinese in the UK and other countries.  The driver had "led police in a 150 kmh chase in Lower Hutt" and landed in the hospital after crashing (!) into a power pole. We await the inevitable followup headline, "Police chase driver out of hospital."


  1. Brian said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    I'm now imagining one of those scenes from the Police Squad movie credit sequences.

  2. Alan Gunn said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    Is there some sort of journalistic superstition that keeps them from using hyphens in headlines?

  3. Chris said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

    But it's a pragmatically odd NP, isn't it? He was not the driver of a police chase. Nor was he the driver of a chase working for the police.

  4. Chris said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    "semantically odd"

  5. Ian Tindale said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    “typical of headlinese in the UK and other countries”

    Why not just say “typical of headlinese in the world”, or just “typical of headlinese” then?

  6. John Cowan said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    Ian Tindale: No, I think that's an improbable headline for a U.S. paper.

    I first read it as "Police chase [pursue] driver who is now in hospital".

  7. John said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    I keep wanting to parse it as a police driver who ended up in a hospital as the result of a chase.

  8. Julie said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

    I'm still having trouble figuring out who's in the hospital. The object of the chase? Or the policeman who was chasing him?

    And no, I can't imagine that headline in a US paper. I think most city papers would say "High-speed chase ends in crash."

  9. Xmun said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    There's a related story on which reports that police have been told to stop using the words "pursuit" or "chase" and instead refer to "fleeing drivers" in media communications.

  10. Nick said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 9:56 pm


    I think it's not the most favored relation but the relation is semantically vague so it can mean exactly what the headline writer wanted it to mean.

  11. J. Goard said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 10:27 pm


    Yeah, and I think that's the most interesting part of the phenomenon. It's not merely that the noun compounds are complex, nor that they're ambiguous, but that they seem to stretch the plastic semantics of the compound relation about as far as it will go.

  12. Joe Fineman said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    Old-fashioned copyeditors would have hyphenated "police-chase". By, now, tho, I'm afraid, neither journalists nor their readers would respond to that convention.

    So also in the classic "Squad Helps Dog[-]Bite Victim".

  13. groki said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 4:26 am


    the hyphen phobia and that new police communication policy would put the crash blossom through a bootleg turn:

    "Police fleeing driver in hospital"

  14. Colin Reid said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 5:45 am

    I've noticed most headlines on the BBC News site are five words long, or six if there are two or more very short words, so I think the compound noun pile-up has emerged as a way of getting as many nouns as possible into such a short space so as to mention the main characters in the story, with the hope that the reader will be able to infer the connection between them. It's probably a similar story on many other news websites. For instance, from today: "Karachi bomb attack funerals due" needs to be grouped as "((Karachi (bomb attacks)) funerals) due" by the reader to understand the story correctly.

    There are some other nice ones up there today:
    "Outlook fears hammer Cisco shares"
    "Twitter airport hoax appeal fails"
    (I didn't know there was a Twitter airport… or was that the hoax?)
    The second one could of course be expanded to "Twitter airport bomb hoax threat man conviction appeal fails" if it weren't for the 5/6 word rule, and then all would be made clear.

    I wonder if anyone's tried writing a short story in BBC headlinese?

  15. jim said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 6:40 am

    Thank you LanguageLog. I now have "Yackety Sax" stuck in my head.

  16. Paul said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    @ Joe Fineman
    What makes you suspect readers wouldn't "respond" to hyphenation? Doesn't the hyphen between "police" and "chase" make the headline easier to parse?

  17. vic said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    @Colin Reid:

    I worked with newspaper computer systems for over thirty years, and saw them move from linotype machines to the internet.

    Newspaper headline writing is (was?) quite an art – trying to get a meaningful headline into as few words as possible due to the limited physical space available.

    I find your comment interesting because you were looking at news sites on the internet. One of advantages of the web to newspapers is that the space is virtually unlimited. Many papers recognize this and put extended versions of their stories on the web, including material that was eliminated from the print product due to space limitations.

    Now, I understand a newspaper's web site not rewriting a headline for the web; but it's interesting ha

    It's curious that a site suck as the BBC, starting with a story which probably never even had a "headline", is using old newspaper traditions to write a headline for the web.

  18. vic said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

    And I should learn to proofread better – the penultimate (sort of) paragraph should be eliminated, and I didn't mean to imply that the BBC web site sucks – that was supposed to be "such", not "suck".

  19. groki said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    @vic: trying to get a meaningful headline into as few words as possible due to the limited physical space available.

    it's true that paper and web headlines have differing amounts of space available. but both also need to deal with the notoriously limited resource of the reader's attention, so succinctness is necessary in both.

  20. Joe Fineman said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    It would make it easier for *me* to parse, but I am 73. My impression is that most younger people have little or no idea of the convention of hyphenating attributive noun phrases. For example, there is a magazine called The Old-House Journal, and a friend asked me what the hyphen was there for. I explained, and conceded that it was old-fashioned, as perhaps befitted The Old-House Journal.

  21. John Cowan said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    Joe Fineman: An explanation that would be actually true in the case of the New-York Historical Society.

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