Belfast noun pile headline head-scratcher

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This head-scratcher of a headline from the Belfast Telegraph was brought to our attention by Mike Pope: "Ed Murray: Sex abuse claim US mayor's time in Northern Ireland 'should be probed'".

Ed Murray, the article explains, recently resigned as the mayor of Seattle under a cloud of allegations of sexual abuse. Amnesty International has asked for a police investigation into Murray's time in Northern Ireland (he worked on a peace project in Belfast in the '70s) to see if there are any further allegations.

The headline is remarkably opaque, especially for those not familiar with the details of the Murray case. First, "Ed Murray" followed by a colon might suggest that Murray is the source of the information in the headline rather than the topic of it. Then we get the noun pile "Sex abuse claim US mayor", which is supposed to be understood as "US mayor tied to sex abuse claim". As if that wasn't bad enough, the noun pile is then put in a possessive construction with the 's clitic, upping the opacity even more.

The noun pile here surely rivals some of the other specimens we've examined from the British and Irish news media. It also continues the running theme of baffling "sex" headlines, such as "Corpse sex kill threat prisoner gets 45 year sentence", "China Ferrari sex orgy death crash", and "Blindfold sex knife attack ex-wife jailed for murder attempt".


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

    I am vaguely aware of the story (although not the potential Northern Ireland angle) and I couldn't have told you from the guy's name as opposed to "the Seattle mayor who just resigned under pressure." Maybe "Seattle" is too obscure a toponym for Belfast readers? Because "sex abuse claim Seattle mayor" would avoid any ambiguity about which "sex abuse claim US mayor" might be meant (it's a big country, there must be others …) and I doubt "Ed Murray" is going to be of practical disambiguation help to hypothetical readers who haven't even heard of Seattle.

  2. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

    According to Google Maps there are at least ten Starbucks outlets in Belfast, all described as "Iconic Seattle-based coffeehouse chain". (But then I'm doing the search from a computer in Seattle, if that matters.)

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 1:45 pm

    One hopes Belfast readers don't get former Mayor Murray with other previously-unknown-to-them US politicians of the same name, like

  4. Ian Menzies said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

    I'm beginning to think that, in the age of twitter and only reading the headlines, maybe noun pile and crashblossom headlines are a net good. They give you a vague idea of the topic of the article, but they don't give the illusion of conveying information that a well-written headline does, so one is forced to actually read at least a paragraph or two of the article to find out what it says. A well written headline, on the other hand, is a good summary of the article. Sometimes a headline is so good, the reader feels as though they don't have to read any more.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

    If anything, this seems like the sort of situation where one might well refer to the sex abuse claim US mayor by a fuller and more formal version of his name (Edward Bernard Patrick Murphy, according to wikipedia) in order to maximize disambiguation and limit collateral damage to the reputation of the world's numerous other Ed Murrays. Which is another good reason to leave the name for the body of the story and omit it from the headline.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

    LLOG is getting me familiar enough with British-Irish noun-pile-up headline syntax that if it had been "Sex abuse claim US mayor Ed Murray's time in Northern Ireland 'should be probed'", I'd only have wondered whether the claim of sexual abuse was made against Murray or by him. As J. W. Brewer says, leaving Murray's name out would have been fine too.

  7. boynamedsue said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 3:14 pm

    Come on, surely that one's obvious?

  8. FM said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

    Ironically, "the name before the colon is the source of the claim" is itself a rule of headlinese that we've internalized and which is now being broken here.

  9. Jim said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

    What, no nodding at the tawdry "joke"? (It's a sex abuse claim, so "probed" gains an extra level.)

  10. JPL said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

    I'm interested in the structure of possible NP modification in these headlines. And no hyphens allowed (Previously unknown to Belfast readers US politicians confused with sex abuse claim mayor file lawsuit). In this case the use of "claim" as a classifier seems tenuous (claim mayor), since the claim is not a property belonging to the person, but only to the discourse about the person. Also, I would rather have "US sex abuse claim mayor", since "US" is a short stand in for "American". "US sex abuse claim mayor's time in Northern Ireland probe should be ended." What are the possibilities for what kinds of constructions can be in these NPs, and what are the constraints? E.g., in the JW Brewerian parenthetical example above, "previously unknown to Belfast readers" is adjectival in function rather than being a nominal classifier (Cf. position of "US"). For "Ferrari sex orgy death crash", contrary to what it probably is, I would rather interpret it as either that the driver in a Ferrari sex orgy died in the sex activity and then crashed, or that the death crash was the purposeful climax of the Ferrari sex orgy. Do the stories in these tabloids need to stick to the actual reality, or are the headlines just a jumping off point for something more interesting?

  11. Haamu said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 6:03 pm

    @JPL — Why "no hyphens allowed"? I gather that's a [rule] of BrHEng, but then we're observing that the rules seem to be evolving.

    The hyphen is simply too good at disambiguating in this sort of situation, and at virtually no typographical cost: headlines will be no wider and will have no fewer break points than they would with spaces. This has been observed by others in previous threads here, but it bears repeating.

    To me, "Sex-abuse-claim US mayor" — or better, following you, "US sex-abuse-claim mayor" — is instantly clear, with no garden path.

    @Jerry Friedman — I suspect you might agree, at least partially, since you spontaneously produced "British-Irish noun-pile-up headline syntax," with the hyphen performing two different functions (to which, I'm guessing, we could assign names like "coordinating" vs. "precedence-binding" or some such).

  12. JPL said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 6:23 pm

    Haamu @6:03 pm

    I have nothing against hyphens for when I want clarity, (JW put hyphens, and that's OK) but in this headline case I didn't want them to be clear; I wanted to have to figure them out, perhaps differently from what they might have intended. I want them to push the boundaries of the grammatical rules, but still stay within them. I also want them to exploit the possibilities of ambiguity, and to not care whether or not we can get the choice right before we read the article. They're puzzles.

  13. Graeme said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 4:21 am

    There's no problem as such with nouns as qualifiers. 'Cult Actor Death' is everywhere today for Harry Dean Stanton. It's the underlying challenge of describing relatively obscure people or groups, in limited space, by reference to some transitory feature, without the noun qualifiers being opaque or ambiguous.

    At present, the BBC News app has this little gem: 'Cat Police Probe UK Animal Killer Link'.
    I'm sure the sub-ed, knowing of a Northampton police probe into a gruesome cat death, thought they'd fashioned a neat headline. To me, it just summoned images of denizens of Gotham City.

  14. John Swindle said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 6:30 am

    The Guardian newspaper's US website currently offers a link to "Francis Bacon/Pope painting by to go on sale after 45 years hidden away". Is that another British headline style, or is it a noun pile adjusted for the imagined American reader?

  15. Matthew McIrvin said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 9:47 am

    My first assumption from the headline was that "sex abuse claim" was a modifier describing his time in Northern Ireland, which seems not to be the case (for now); rather he's the sex-abuse-claim US mayor and someone is urging a probe of his time in Northern Ireland.

  16. Matthew McIrvin said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 9:51 am

    @Graeme: "Cult Actor Death" actually reads as misleading to me–it sounds as if he was an actor killed in some cult-related way (human-sacrifice ritual? an apostate murdered by acolytes?) rather than a cult actor who died, and I wonder if the misreading is something the headline is intentionally trying to evoke.

  17. Ellen Kozisek said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

    First time I read it it seemed to make perfect sense. Until I reread it and realized "sex abuse" did not work as a subject for the verb "claim". It took reading the post to reparse "Sex abuse claim U.S. mayor" into a noun pile.

  18. chris said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 10:40 pm

    I was primed by the post headline to expect a noun pile, and got it almost right. The combination of "Ed Murray:" at the beginning and a few words in quotation marks later on led me to believe that Ed Murray was the person who had expressed that opinion that the mayor's time in Northern Ireland should be probed (presumably, to see if he had committed any new sex abuses).

    I would guess that the "starting with a name followed by a colon identifies the speaker of what follows" convention can be traced to either theater scripts or transcripts of things like meetings or court proceedings, whichever is older (one probably coming from analogy to the other, and both far antedating headlines). Thus, I wouldn't describe it as a "rule of headlinese" so much as a rule that's been adopted into headlinese. Regardless, the convention is well established in headlines and elsewhere, which makes it confusing to defy it like this.

    For an attempt at a clarifying rewrite, it's tempting to start with something like "Ed Murray, sex abuse claim US mayor," to make it clear that those are the same person and squash the alternative interpretation of Ed Murray as the source of the opinion, but then how do you connect that to "time"?

    Maybe "Sex abuse claim US mayor Ed Murray's time in Northern Ireland 'should be probed'" — although that still leaves out the source of the quote, I hope it's at least provided in the body of the article. Seems to me reasonably clear that all the stuff that comes before Ed Murray's name in that version is describing him.

    Or, if you have the space for it, "Alleged sex abuse US mayor Ed Murray's time in Northern Ireland 'should be probed'", which avoids ambiguity or garden-pathing based on the syntactic flexibility of "claim" while still preserving the libel-suit repellent of not outright calling him a sex abuser.

  19. mollymooly said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 9:44 am

    My reaction matches chris's. The Sex abuse claim US mayor's time in Northern Ireland 'should be probed' part is unproblematic for native readers of UK-headlinese; the initial Ed Murray: is a fail by the sub-editor that invites misinterpretation. Ed Murray case: Sex abuse claim US mayor's time in Northern Ireland 'should be probed' might have been what the sub-editor started with.

    The headline and suggested improvements all seem to presuppose that readers (1) are already familiar with the "Sex-abuse-claim US mayor" story, (2) need to be reminded of the mayor's name, (3) perhaps need to be informed of a connection to Northern Ireland, and (4) certainly need to be informed of Amnesty's reaction to the connection. However, I see no evidence of (1) in the form of a previous story on about the mayor.

  20. Bev Rowe said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 6:47 am

    The failure of the sub to follow the normal rules and write

    "Sex abuse claim US mayor Ed Murray's time in Northern Ireland 'should be probed"

    has now been thoroughly probed.

  21. dw said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 9:39 am

    I would have interpreted the headline as meaning that Ed Murray is the one saying that things should be probed.

  22. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 10:39 am

    A US sex abuse claim mayor would be a completely different thing from a sex abuse claim US mayor – the first is a mayor (presumably of Belfast in this case, but I suppose possibly London or Dublin) accused of carrying out sexual abuse during a period spent in America, the second is an (unspecified) American mayor accused of sexual abuse. We seem to be dealing with the second.

    A colon to set off a speaker's name is rare in UK headlines – they're more often used to set the scene (as in examples at I certainly read 'Ed Murray' as the subject, although it's not a very good use because it's not a well known name, and doesn't really introduce the topic at all!

    (I wrote the first half of this comment before and it vanished, so if it turns up twice I apologise…)

  23. JPL said,

    September 19, 2017 @ 4:20 am

    Jen in Edinburgh @10:39:

    You're right that "American sex abuse claim" would be a possible interpretation of the "US sex abuse claim mayor" version, but so would its interpretation as referring to an American mayor (bracketing difference). If an ambiguity is thereby introduced into the headline, that's OK with me, since I want the headlines to multiply ambiguities, not eliminate them. I'm more interested in observing the headline writers exploring the possibilities and the governing rules of English noun phrase modification, and especially the rules governing noun piles. The position out front further from the innermost nominal is for adjectival function, and if "US" is considered to have adjectival (attributive) function (= "American"), "US" would no longer be part of the noun pile, but at least it would make sense. The position next to the innermost nominal is (if it's filled) for other nouns functioning as classificational modifiers, and my problem with "sex abuse claim US mayor" is that that usage is usually used for officeholders in the federal government: US President, US Attorney General, US Senator, etc., and "mayor" is not a post in the federal government. "Sex abuse claim US Senator's time in Northern Ireland should be probed" would be OK. That's my impression; I could be wrong.

    I agree with you about the colon: I've seen a lot of British headlines with "topic: comment" organization.

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