Eight word BBC headline noun pile construction

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Ian Preston reports this British headline word pile construction noun phrase length gem: "Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown 'sorry'".

Ian's construal:

I usually have no trouble decoding these but this latest BBC example challenged me: Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown 'sorry'. That's eight nouns in a row, four of them coming in the names of  two people's I'd not previously heard of.  It's intelligible once you know the story: a hairdresser called James Brown caused a controversy by using racial insults to Ben Douglas at the Bafta awards ceremony and has apologised.    I didn't know the story and, thinking someone called Ben Douglas must have provoked a controversy about race by winning a Bafta, struggled on first reading to incorporate hairdressing or the Godfather of Soul into the train of associations.  I think I'd have read it correctly without the names.

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. Medieval Guy said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    If there'd been a comma after "row," I think it would have been a lot more parsable…

    [(myl) But then you'd be parsing it wrong! In British Headlinese, 'X row Y" means "the Y involved in a controversy concerning X". So the syntactic relationship between "row" and "hairdresser" is tighter than the relationship between "hairdresser" and "James Brown". The bracketing is

    [[[[[Ben Douglas] [Bafta [race row]] hairdresser] [James Brown]] 'sorry']

    (or maybe "Bafta" binds to the left rather than the right).]

  2. Gabriel Faure said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    This crash blossom wasn't as bad as it could have been. Because of the named entities and collocations involved, we know that 'Ben Douglas' is a unit, 'James Brown' is a unit, 'race row' is a unit, and that 'Ben Douglas Bafta' cannot form a unit. The correct structure falls out without too much effort.

  3. Zythophile said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 9:41 am

    My personal criticism of the headline is that the story is not about a "race row", it's about a "race insult" – the "n" word (not that the BBC story tells you that, strangely). Furthermore James Brown shouldn't be "sorry", he should be horsewhipped, but that's getting away from the immediate linquistic subject under discussion.

  4. Ian Preston said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    … or maybe "Bafta" binds to the left rather than the right

    No, I think your bracketing is correct. "Ben Douglas Bafta" would suggest a Bafta award won by Ben Douglas (as in the original reading of mine that you quote) and he was only attending the ceremony, not collecting a prize. It must, I think, be a "Bafta race row" involving "Ben Douglas".

  5. Tom McGeveran said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    At my publication that headline would probably require hyphens; well it would require such weird hyphenation that we probably wouldn't actually run the headline this way. But, if we did, it'd be something like this?:

    Ben Douglas Bafta-race-row hairdresser James Brown 'sorry'

  6. Mr Punch said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    As GF said, this one's actually pretty clear. I had to stop and think, but not for long.

  7. Robert Coren said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    I almost got it, except that I had never heard of Bafta, and had the idea that the race row had involved someone named "Ben Douglas Bafta". If they had written BAFTA (as they should have), it would have been clear even to us film-award illiterates.

  8. Scott Y said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 11:03 am

    "Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown sorry" makes sense to me, having been vaguely following the story. The addition of "Ben Douglas" to the beginning, though, confuses me: it seems to me like they're just trying to fit his name in anywhere. Actually, it would work like this:

    "Ben Douglas hairdresser James Brown sorry"

    because I read that as "James Brown, the hairdresser associated with Ben Douglas," but "Bafta race row" confuses matters. I guess you can only modify "hairdresser" with one unit: either the person or the event with which he's associated. Trying to modify it with both obviously doesn't work.

  9. Scott Y said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    Oh, I see. "Ben Douglas Bafta race row" is one unit. How silly of me. Perfectly plain.

  10. Dan T. said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    The marketing types these days seem to like to insist on various acronymed names being spelled as if they're normal words instead of in all caps, often concurrently with insisting that the acronyms no longer stand for anything at all and shouldn't be expanded but are the indivisible proper name of the entity involved. That's their way of dealing with some old company or organization that has an acronym name that's too famous to drop, but which stands for something embarrassingly old-fashioned or politically-incorrect or out of touch with their current marketing focus, that they'd like to get away from.

    In the current headline, the confusion is possibly increased by some of the words having multiple meanings: "race" can refer to ethnicity or a speed contest (if you don't know what "Bafta" is, you might think it could be something like "NASCAR" which runs races), and "row" can be a fight or a group of things in a line, or a verb for what you do to a boat.

  11. dw said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    I usually have no trouble with these (I grew up in the UK and still check British news websites pretty regularly). However, I was, and to some extent remain, confused by this one.

    This may be because I'm unfamiliar with the story, and have never heard of Ben Douglas or (this) James Brown, but I don't think that's the entire reason.

    Had the headline been

    Bafta race row hairdresser "sorry"

    or even

    Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser "sorry"

    it would have been far easier to understand (for me).

    What confuses me is that, in such concise headlinese, the BBC is actually including redundant information: it's identifying the individual both as the "Ben Douglas race row hairdresser" and as "James Brown". What's more, the "James Brown" isn't a well-known individual, making his redundant identification doubly weird.

  12. Ken Brown said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    Should I feel sad or smug that I parsed it correctly first time?

    It worlds from right to left as usual

    Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown 'sorry'.

    Someone is sorry. Who is sorry? James Brown is sorry. Who is James Brown? James Brown is the Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser. And so on

  13. Brett said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    @dw: I too stumbled over the inclusion of "James Brown." Although not being British, I've seen enough of these headlines now to get the general idea of how to parse them. (For example, I immediately read "row" with the correct meaning–and pronunciation–in heds like this.) "James Brown" seemed oddly placed, and the immediate associations name that conjured up were pretty distracting.

    However, I think they had good reason to include the name, just based on the first paragraphs shown in the screenshot. The identity of the individual responsible was just as much news as the fact that he had apologized.

  14. MarcL said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    As a former newspaper editor, I have several comments. It's a bad headline. Readers are not supposed to stop and parse headlines. The headline is supposed to tell the story clearly. This one fails to do so.

    [(myl) With respect, your evaluation depends on the assumption that the headline is in English. But it isn't — it's in British Headlinese. And for natives of that language variety, it seems to be entirely transparent, at least if they know the proper names involved (which is always an issue in headline understanding).

    I mean, you wouldn't complain about "Российские вокзалы готовы к летним пассажирским перевозкам", as long as it was in a Russian-language newspaper, right?

    Still, British Headlinese is a source of wonderment to those us on the left side of the Atlantic Ocean.]

  15. The Ridger said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    "James Brown" is an unfortunate name to be evoked in a "race row" context. That was confusing to me.

    @Robert Coren: "supposed to" is a variable thing. In British publications, any initialism that's pronounced as a word is spelled like a word, not an acronym. Bafta, Nato, Nascar, Nasdaq etc. It's confusing at first, but I've gotten used to it.

  16. Aaron Toivo said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

    BBC news article headline crash blossom language parse analysis row noun pile construction not as bad as it could be.

  17. GeorgeW said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

    So, what are the grammatical rules of "British Headlinese?" I could guess no verbs and no function words. But is there some noun-order and/or noun-type rule that allows a fluent reader to parse it?

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

    Does the Irish press not follow the same dialect conventions? I by coincidence just got forwarded a screenshot of a headline from a year or two back from the (Dublin) Evening Herald that was substantively exotic but syntactically transparent by U.S. standards ("Woman In Sumo Wrestler Suit Assaulted Her Ex-Girlfriend In Gay Pub After She Waved At Man Dressed As A Snickers Bar").

  19. Virginia Simmon said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    I figured it out eventually — after I realized the word "row" did not rhyme with "roe" and did not refer to a tier of some kind.

  20. Peter said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    One vote here that as a native reader of British Headlinese, who has been distantly aware of the story, this headline was quite intelligible — less a crash blossom, than an impressive demonstration of how BrH can remain unambiguous even in long noun pileups.

    @GeorgeW: This example shows the two main constructions of BrH. A juxtaposition A B usually uses A as a modifier or specifier of B, as in:

    race row
    Bafta [race row]
    [Ben Douglas] [Bafta [race row]]
    [[Ben Douglas] [Bafta [race row]]] hairdresser
    [[[Ben Douglas] [Bafta [race row]]] hairdresser] [James Brown]
    or (usually at the highest level of the headline) attributes the action or quotation B to the actor A:

    ([[[Ben Douglas] [Bafta [race row]]] hairdresser] [James Brown]) ‘sorry’

    Given a headline constructed this way, context and semantics (hopefully) show how the bracketing has to go. The second comment, from @Gabriel Faure, together with @myl’s response to the first, give a pretty good explanation of how to figure it out in this example.

  21. Bobbie said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

    Dan T : "various acronymed names …That's their way of dealing with some old company or organization that has an acronym name that's too famous to drop, but which stands for something embarrassingly old-fashioned or politically-incorrect or out of touch with their current marketing focus, that they'd like to get away from."
    What springs to mind is NAACP (still capitalized) – which manages to avoid the word "Colored" by using the acronym, KFC – which avoids the word "Fried, or Aids ( formerly AIDS) – which manages to sidestep the much longer full name of the disease.
    As for British headlines, I prefer to wait until someone explains them to me.

  22. Nelson said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    How would one go about translating into BrH? For example, what would the Irish headline earlier mentioned be? "Gay Pub Sumo Woman Ex Snickers Wave Assault" ?

  23. GeorgeW said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: Even if it violates every rule of BrH, how in the world could one possibly not read the story with that headline?

  24. un malpaso said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 1:17 am

    Is it just me, or is there a subtle difference in US and UK style here, in that the US would probably use a colon before the "sorry" quote?
    OK, I see now that "sorry" isn't ACTUALLY a quote in this context… however, I do believe it would have been rendered with just a tad bit more clarity if the editor had placed "sorry" either in quotes/inverted commas, or after a colon, as a paraphrase. Just to break up the logjam of words.

    Especially with the use of the proper noun, it seems like a simple courtesy to punctuate somehow. But maybe the colon was worth more than its weight in gold. In which case, to save money, I would render it

    Douglas/Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown 'sorry'".

    What's wrong with using some punctuation symbols?! come on, guys!

  25. Jason L. said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 4:24 am


    If I'm allowed to use a single verb, provided that it also be parseable as a noun, I'd render it as "Sumo Suit [Gay] Pub Woman Assaults Snickers Wave Ex". If no verbs whatsoever are allowed but one function word is, then it's "Sumo Suit Gay Pub Woman in Snickers Wave Ex Assault Row". You can also do it with neither verbs nor function words entirely if you allow a colon: "Sumo Suit Pub Woman: Snickers Wave Ex Assault Row", which I think is the most aesthetically pleasing, as it consists entirely of nouns and uses the word "row" (probably second to "bid" as a workhorse in BrH).

    I'd prefer to eliminate "gay" since it's an adjective.

  26. maidhc said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 4:40 am

    I think they do it on purpose. It's just one of those things, like the cheese-rolling.

  27. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 5:36 am

    I didn't know the story, but I almost got it right. My initial parsing was: "James Brown, the hairdresser who styled Ben Douglas's hair when he won a Bafta, says "sorry" for causing a race row."

    If they had written BAFTA (as they should have), it would have been clear even to us film-award illiterates.

    Many style guides, apparently including the BBC's, require initial capitals only for acronyms (ie where the individual letters aren't spelled out in speech). So: "Nasa" but "FBI".

  28. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 6:03 am

    It's certainly not the case that verbs are excluded from these headlines. Looking at the same site today (BBC London), the main headline is simply Man dies in south London shooting (which ought to have a capitalised South). There are various others with verbs among the top headlines, e.g.:

    Olympics ticket deadline passes
    Ex-Tory peer jailed over expenses
    'Sex with MP' website criticised

    I think it's just that the verbless ones are harder to parse and so funnier and more likely to get a mention on the Log.

  29. Ken Brown said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 6:13 am

    "Sumo girl bashes ex in Snickers bar man row"

  30. Ken Brown said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 6:18 am

    Oh, and BBC News: "Koran burning row grabs headlines" :-)

  31. James C. said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    Hmmm . . . at what point does a noun pile become a noun pileup?

  32. RP said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 8:57 am

    What makes you think the word "south" should be capitalised?

  33. RP said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    This page http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/apps/tutor/html/capitals/index.html describes the BBC's capitalisation rules, and specifically advises writing "south-east England" and "north Wales" without capitalising the adjectives.

    Amusingly, after asking whether one should write "prime minister" or "Prime Minister", it gives the answer: "It depends on which part of the BBC you work for" and says you should "check which style guide or reference book is considered the authority in your area".

  34. Ellen K. said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    @Un Malpaso. "Sorry" already is in quotes in the headline.

  35. Zythophile said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    Capitalising or not capitalising in the case of south/South London and similar geographical areas not actually official names depends on an almost entirely arbitrary decision by the editor of each organisation's style guide. As usual, the rule should be, it doesn't matter which version you use, so long as everyone uses the same version, to avoid time-wasting and potential error each time copy passes from someone with one view on capitalisation to someone with another view.

  36. Coughin' Ed said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 10:41 am


  37. Holly said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 10:43 am

    For me hairdresser binds to James Brown. If it weren't necessary to explain that this isn't about "the" James Brown but hairdresser James Brown, they could have omitted hairdresser.

  38. David Walker said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    Aaron Toivo wins the prize! That was great.

  39. Jason L. said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    Here are some more I just discovered:

    "Disabled stage benefits cuts demo": http://news.aol.co.uk/discuss-feed/disabled-stage-benefits-cuts-demo/1799670/

    I started this one off thinking that a disabled stage was benefitting a cuts demo, but couldn't figure out what a cuts demo was, or what a disabled stage was supposed to be.

    "Legal stoush brews over schoolies ban bid": http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/04/09/2868246.htm?site=goldcoast

    The last one is probably not too hard for speakers of AusE, but I didn't know what "stoush" meant, and at first though it was a verb, and that "brews" was a noun. And "ban bid" made sense only because I remembered the earlier LL-featured crash blossom, "Council hires ban bid taxi firm".

  40. Ken Brown said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

    "Legal stoush brews over schoolies ban bid" ?

    This Brit got the syntax in one. Someone is trying to prevent schoolies from doing something, and someone else is planning to start a legal row over it. "Stoush" is rare to absent in British English but that is clear from context.

    But even after reading the whole article I didn't know what "schoolies" were. That is a truly obscure Australianism! I thought of at least four possibilities, none of which turn out to be quite correct, though one so almost is that it does.

    FWIW the possibilities were parents with kids of school age, organised school trips, school-age kids on their own without adults, and university or college students (as if the Australians had decided to call universities "schools")

  41. Edward Carney said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    The "Legal stoush {verb form} over" form of headline is, apparently, common enough in Australia. There are various verbs usable. A sampling from Google:

    Legal stoush over topless Pippa pics
    Legal stoush over estate of recluses Emily Prichystal and daughter
    Legal stoush brews over flood compo
    Legal stoush brewing over “weight-loss” tea
    Legal stoush looms over sugar losses
    Legal stoush erupts over mine pollution claims

  42. dw said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

    Here's another bizarre headline, from the New York Times:

    Lawmaker Denies Sending Suggestive Photo but Doesn’t Rule Out It’s of Him

  43. Ken Brown said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 4:50 am

    That may be a bizarre headline but its got nothing in common with the headlinese syntax in the opening post. Which it is claimed is peculiarly British – though as I am British I wouldn't know, in a fish-can't-see-water sort of way.

    If the same thing had happened in Britain the headline might have been something like: "Underwear pic MP denies tweet"

  44. John Desmond said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

    My first take on this:
    'Ben Douglas' = mountain or big hill, maybe by Scottish loch
    (headline is from BBC, after all)
    'Bafta race' Bafta = type of boat (canoe, maybe?),
    or race sponsored by Bafta,
    'row' = not sail or motor boats
    "hairdresser James Brown 'sorry'" = ?????

  45. framing said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 5:58 am

    "Gay Pub Sumo Woman Ex Snickers Wave Assault"
    Aaron Toivo wins the prize! That was great.

  46. Debbo said,

    October 19, 2011 @ 3:20 am

    This one appeared in today's Sydney Morning Herald on-line:

    Eels board mulls club scandal claims

    SMH 19th October, accessed 19.04pm

  47. ‘Smuggle plot tomatoes’ and other distant compounds « Sentence first said,

    June 27, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    […] I’ve written before about noun pileups, where nouns pile up to form strange or baffling strings, typically in headlines, such as “Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed”. Some, like “Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown 'sorry'”, are almost parse-proof. […]

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