Crash blossom of the week

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"Virginia Beach man accused of decapitating son to stay in hospital", (Newport News) Daily Press, 9/26/2011.

In this case, there's both a syntactic-grouping ambiguity and a functional ambiguity — the headline is meant to be interpreted as

[[(a) Virginia Beach man [(who is) accused of decapitating (his) son]] [(is) to stay in (the) hospital]]

but readers are likely to parse it first as

[(a) Virginia Beach man [is accused of [decapitating (his) son [(in order) to stay in (the) hospital]]]]

Obligatory screenshot:

[Tip of the hat to Tom Gilson]


  1. BobC said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    For a moment I almost read it as meaning "Virginia Beach man accused of decapitating son [in order for the son] to stay in hospital."

  2. Filius Lunae said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

    Maybe because we are linguistically oriented folk, but I hadn't parsed it any other way besides the intended one until I read the post with the analysis. :)

  3. Janice Byer said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

    I parsed it as the man having decapitated his son in order that he himself could stay longer in some hospital, which makes no sense on several levels, but then neither does his decapitating someone, let alone his son, who presumably had been visiting him in the hospital…yikes.

  4. Nelida said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

    The things some people do so that can stay in hospital…..

  5. Brian said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    Filius Lunae: Me too, but I attributed that to it having been presented as a crash blossom before I started reading it. My mind automatically started looking for a nested clause.

  6. John Lawler said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 7:07 pm

    You got it. First parse.

  7. Brett said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

    I frequently have a hard time seeing the alternative readings of these crash blossom headlines. However, this one jumped right out at me. I saw both interpretations more or less instantly, although my mind automatically picked out the intended one. I think the alternative parsing actually flows quite a bit better, even though it sounds ludicrous.

  8. Agustin said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    Virginia Beach man accused of decapitating son will stay in hospital?

  9. John Roth said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 9:04 pm


    That's the first reading I got, too. It took a moment to disentangle it.

    Why someone would think that decapitating their son would extend the son's hospital stay eludes me. Maybe I haven't been reading enough of the current political discourse yet.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

    A simple "is" before "to stay" would of course make it clear, but copula avoidance seems to be an ironclad rule in US headline writing. Why?

  11. Rubrick said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

    I think the ambiguity arises because, in this context, "son" is headless.

  12. Oliver Lawrence said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 1:57 am

    I found that, on first reading, when I got to 'accused', my brain was happy for 'Virginia Beach man' to be the subject and for 'accused' to be the finite verb (long subjects like 'Virgina Beach man accused of decapitating' or 'Virgina Beach man accused of decapitating son' are, on balance, less likely). I suspect many other readers would do the same, hence the confusion.

  13. Martin B said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 4:51 am

    If only they could have written "Virginia Beach son decapitation man to stay in hospital" they would have avoided the ambiguity.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 5:37 am

    Clearly another problem with Obamacare – perverse incentives.

  15. Theodore said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    If the publication had used all caps for the headline, there would be another reading or two about a "beach man" from Virginia.

  16. Mr Punch said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

    I read it in the unintended way. The standard way to fix the headline would not be to insert "is," but to change "to stay" to "will stay" (or just "stays").

  17. Ross Presser said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    @Augustin: That would lead me to parse that the son's name is Will.

  18. etv13 said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

    Did anybody else read the text you can see below the headline in the screenshot and think the use of the word "accused" to describe a man who was found not guilty by reason of insanity kind of odd?

  19. maidhc said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 12:57 am

    "Corruption claims dog bureaucrats"

    LINTON BESSER Claims of passports being sold by the Australian High Commission at Colombo…
    (Sydney Morning Herald, 2011-9-24)

  20. Chris said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 2:35 am

    @Ross Presser: I struggle to imagine how anybody would parse that as Will being the son's name. The headline isn't using initial caps on each word, which would probably tip you off, and just the act of specifying the name in the headline seems to me like it would be a little odd. In any case, there's a verb/noun disagreement at the very next word if you parse it that way, so it would at least reduce the amount of backtracking required.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    Or, to put it more simply, the word "will" would not be capitalized in the headline Augustin suggests. Thus, it's hard to imagine anyone mistaking it for the name "Will". "will" and "Will" look clearly different. (Evenmoreso when not surrounded by quotes!)

  22. C Ryan King said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    Seeing it labeled crash-blossom I parsed 2) that he had decapitated his son in order to stay in the hospital 3) that he had decapitated his son who had been due to go to the hospital. I did not even get the intended meaning until reading the entry.

  23. Michael Cargal said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    Somebody else noticed. The headline now reads "Virginia Beach man accused of decapitating son will stay in hospital."

  24. Janice Byer said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

    etv13, yes, I, too, was arrested by the word "accused". A judgment of "not guilty by reason of insanity" necessarily entails a conviction by the jury or judge that a crime was committed as charged. I'm sympathetic to the reporter for apparently confounding the ruling with "not guilty" to which the man had been entitled had the Commonwealth failed to prove its tragic case. Reporters are generally generalists and the less we know about their topics, the less jarring is their coverage.

  25. Rob D said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 4:24 am

    May I humbly submit "Serious Injury Driving Crime Plan" from today's BBC News homepage?

  26. Eve said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    Janet: it makes perfect sense if the man was in a mental hospital ;)

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