Crashless blossoms

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Before reading further, consider the following newspaper headline, and make a mental note of what you think the article is about:

This headline appeared last week in the Calgary Herald. I eyeballed it without cognitive incident, and settled down to read what I thought would be one of those year-end, low-calorie servings of retrospective meta-journalism in which there is much musing about what the past year's news events all mean. Sort of a re-mastication of analyses about the lessons we might have gleaned from the Occupy Movement.

Actually, the article turned out to be news news, reporting on the following startling event:

Many Occupy L.A. protesters arrested during demonstrations in recent months are being offered a unique chance to avoid court trials: pay $355 to a private company for a lesson in free speech.

Los Angeles chief deputy city attorney William Carter said the city won't press charges against protesters who complete the educational program offered by American Justice Associates.

Later, the article explains:

Carter said the free-speech class will save the city money and teach protesters the nuances of the law.

Naturally, part of my surprise was due to the prospect of citizens being required to fork over money to a private business, which would teach them about the limits to their constitutional rights, in exchange for a reprieve from the legal repercussions of civil disobedience. But I was also surprised to find that, contrary to my breezy reading of the headline in which I'd parsed the phrase Occupy protesters as the subject of the verb offered in the active voice, I should have read offered as being in the passive voice, with the protesters being the recipients of free-speech lessons rather than the purveyors of those lessons.

When I showed my son the headline, asking him to imagine what the article was about, he proposed that someone was lecturing a group of Occupy protesters about free speech—in other words, he got the correct interpretation of the headline.

A garden-variety crash blossom, perhaps. But many of the crash blossoms that Language Log plucks from the press really do crash, some quite spectacularly, as in this recent (12/16/2011) example: "Bright sparks weather gala night power cut to party on."

More often than not, among the examples pressed between this blog's pages, something goes haywire in the reading of the headline itself, when it becomes apparent that an initial interpretation simply can't be right—either because it results in an ungrammatical pile of words rear-ending each other, or an absurd event ("Dog helps lightning strike Redruth mayor"; 10/27/2011) But the Calgary Herald headline had just sailed smoothly by, and had I not read the article, it wouldn't have gotten a second glance from me. And when I asked my son if he found the headline confusing in any way, he looked puzzled—his own reading of the headline, though different from mine, had also proceeded without incident and I had to explain the ambiguity in order for him to become aware of it.

Despite the ample opportunities for ambiguities in the English language, we hardly ever notice them unless something goes awry, and this happens surprisingly rarely. Not only that, but there's usually a congenial unanimity over how to interpret forms that, at least in principle, can bend in different directions. This headline appears to be a fine specimen of an ambiguous sentence that is perfectly balanced on a knife's edge of ambiguity, the kind of near-perfect linguistic Necker Cube that you don't see all that often in the wild.

But what is it that guides the parsing of a sentence in such a way that it's almost always interpreted with unanimity? And what's going on with this particular headline that allows it to be read so differently by two different people?

In fact, psycholinguists have painstakingly documented the various factors that contribute to one reading of an ambiguous phrase or sentence being favored over another. All things being equal, some structures seem to be preferred over others, whether due to their syntactic simplicity or their sheer frequency. For example, active readings tend to be preferred over passive ones, when both are possible. But this is mitigated by the specific verb in the sentence—some verbs rarely occur in the passive form, while others do quite often, and readers have implicit expectations based on the syntactic histories of individual verbs. The verb offered happens to occur roughly equally often in both forms. Then there are expectations about the likely thematic roles of particular noun phrases combined with particular verbs—that is, how likely is it that Occupy protesters will be the providers of lessons, rather than the recipients of lessons? Clearly, plausible scenarios can be constructed for both. Compare this headline, for example, to the structurally identical sentence: Homeless families offered shelter over the holidays. Homeless families are hardly in a position to be offering shelter, so one would expect that pretty much everyone would agree on how to read this sentence. In the normal course of parsing an ambiguous string of words, the mind weighs the evidence for each reading and settles on the winner swiftly and without fuss. Your conscious self is rarely aware of the deliberations of your internal parser.

The reason that most crash blossoms come to such a violent end is because the cues that guide the interpretation of the ambiguity tend to converge on a reading that happens to, well, eventually crash. But when it comes to the Calgary Herald headline, most of the evidence considered by the parser turns out to be rather inconclusive. The sentence could readily unfold either way. So why would my son and I be nudged towards very different readings? It may well come down to the wiggle room afforded by contextual expectations—perhaps my son had a slightly higher expectation that protesters would be subjected to lessons in civics from others. Possibly my own expectations were shaped by just having read several end-of-year retrospective articles. If I'd been in the mode of reading pure news reporting, my stylistic expectations might have been set differently. Notice, for example, that in order to get the active reading of the headline, the verb has to be interpreted as being in the past tense, which is a bit unusual for headlinese, where news events tend to be reported in the present tense. Normally the active version of our news headline might read as: Occupy protesters offer lesson in free speech. (For instance, a bit of news reporting on the same page was headlined: Researchers warn about too-loud toys.) But in the context of a retrospective piece of writing about lessons learned over the past year, the past tense would plausibly be used, even in a headline.

These are highly subtle considerations on which to stake an interpretation. Because ambiguities are so rarely poised between two equally viable readings, such subtleties tend not to cast a deciding vote very often, generally being dwarfed by more brutish parsing expectations. But in this case, they may well have played a role in tipping the reading one way for me, and another for my son.

Incidentally, the L.A. Times, where the article originated, has opted for the following entirely unambiguous headline (at least for its online version of the piece):

Some Occupy L.A. protesters may get a lesson in free speech.


  1. Michael Carasik said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

    Nothing ambiguous about this headline. News headlines are always in the present tense and regularly omit the verb "to be" in this construction: "Killer given life sentence." Only if the headline had appeared in a comment/editorial context, and "Occupy" was far enough in the past, might one have taken "offered" as active and transitive.

    [(js) Of course, the headline is ambiguous, whether or not it feels that way, and the very point of my commentary was that, in all likelihood, these kinds of stylistic expectations definitively tilt an interpretation only under certain conditions, when other important cues that are considered by the parser don't all conspire to favor one reading over another.]

  2. nobody said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    Indeed, this one is a crash blossom waiting to happen. 10-years hence, when "Occupy" will surely no longer be current shorthand as a proper noun, this will momentarily befuddle a researcher or two.

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    A small part of what makes the ambiguity is that the past and the past participle are the same "word", so that active and passive appear the same, as an illusion. To make Micheal Carasik's example fit the model, the past of give and its past participle would have to be the same. Yet the other sentence is "Killer gave life sentence," which in not ambiguous. "Killer refused life sentence," is ambiguous due to its refused/refused identity.

  4. The Ridger said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    I agree with Michael Carasik: Americans at least are trained to see "protesters offered" in a headline as meaning "protesters were offered". The other meaning would have to be (for me) "protesters offer", which is headlinese for "protesters offered" in the active.

    If it were not in a headline, I'd parse it as active, because as a "sentence" the auxiliary needs to be there. So the context makes this one unambiguous for me.

    (And courts throw business to private firms all the time. Driving schools, rehab, even AA…)

  5. jfruh said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

    I too interpreted it correctly, and I for the reasons Michael offers: headlinese is (with the exception of year-end retrospective articles) almost always in the present tense. However, I interpreted the "offered a lesson" as metaphorical — like, the police restrictions on their activities offered them a lesson on the limits of free speech — rather than literal.

  6. Ø said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

    Only if the headline had appeared in a comment/editorial context, and "Occupy" was far enough in the past, might one have taken "offered" as active and transitive.

    Only if "one" means oneself can one make such a statement with real assurance.

    My series of cognitive incidents went something like this:

    – This is LL and that is a headline, so expect a crash blossom

    – "Occupy" could mislead someone by not being the verb
    – But surely not at this late date

    – Oh, I see: the ambiguity is, were they offered a lesson or did they offer a lesson?

    – Well, interpreting according to normal headline conventions, this says they were offered a lesson. So I suppose it's meant the other way. Let's look.
    – Nope. The standard reading was right.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

    Would the ideology of the reader and their attitude toward the Occupy movement lead to an active or passive interpretation? Positive attitude – active interpretation. Negative attitude – passive interpretation.

    [(js) This is an interesting question that I became curious about myself, and I'm pretty sure that no one has empirically looked at the relationship between attitudes about certain subjects and the interpretation of ambiguities. My own suspicion is that the more robust expectations come from assessing what the speaker/writer is likely to be intending to communicate—which, in the case of strongly-held opinions might get conflated with one's own attitudes to some extent. But this would be an nice little question to investigate.]

  8. Stan said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    I interpreted it correctly, but it was a close call because I wondered if it might be a Language Log double bluff! The post title alerted me to the ambiguity, the headline context favoured the passive, and I had in mind a similar example I considered blogging about last year.

    A caption in the Guardian [image] had the following text:

    Gordon Taylor: Paid £700,000 after suing the News of the World over its alleged involvement in the illegal interception of messages left on his mobile phone

    Not as neatly ambiguous as the protesters offered headline, but it did take me a moment to notice the "hidden" passive and to realise that Mr Taylor received the money.

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

    I thought this was going to be about some Gricean analysis on how "offering someone a lesson in free speech" was to be understood in some figurative way–akin to "teaching someone a lesson they won't forget." And then it turns out it was about a literal offer of a literal lesson in free speech. This looks-figurative-but-actually-literal style is a pretty common source of humor in headlines, I suppose.

  10. Brett said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

    @Ø: This is off-topic, but the use of "one" to mean "oneself" does seem to be out there, although not in my (American) dialect. I only use "one" when I specifically want to indicate that the subject is an abstract individual, not primarily meant to be either me or the person to whom I am speaking. If there is no possibility of (or problem with) ambiguity between a generic person and the person I'm addressing, I would generally use "you."

    On the other hand, I remember an episode of the British comedy Good Neighbors, in which Penelope Keith's character says something with "one," then immediately gets flustered and rephrases it, to make it clear that she's not talking about herself. To my American ear, the joke made no sense, since "one" is, to me, a marker that one is specifically not speaking about oneself. Obviously, however the joke must have worked for the original British audience.

    @GeorgeW: I parsed the statement correctly the first time I saw it, but my reading was strongly associated with an assumed political position taken by the article author. I am a strong supporter of the Occupy movement. (I attend, although do not camp out at, protests in my home town when I am available.) I thought the article would be a right-wing criticism of the movement—as in, some conservative figure showing the protestors what free speech is "really" supposed to be about.

  11. vic said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

    Re paying a private company to avoid legal repercussions. I was first surprised as well, but then realized this was similar to paying to take a private "Traffic School" class to avoid being penalized for for a ticket.

  12. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    I'm a long-time newspaper reader and former headline writer (USA) and I had no problem at all with the headline. As other commenters have noted, if a verb appears in the past tense in a headline, it's almost always passive. For the record, I have a very positive toward the Occupy movement.

  13. Janice Byer said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

    My interpretation matches that of Julie's son and supports her theory that a tendentious mind will run interference to get a presumed point, with ambiguity's potential unrecognized in the dust.

    My expectation was that the Occupy Movement had been in receipt of a supercilious open letter circulated by a faction of their detractors.

  14. The Ridger said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

    Two points in clarification: I didn't know what the 'lesson in free speech' was, only that Occupy was getting, not giving, it. And I too have a positive attitude to them, so I was in fact irritated by the headline.

  15. Rubrick said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

    @Michael: "Nothing ambiguous about this headline."

    So, two people read it and came to opposite conclusions as to what it meant. You must use a different definition of "ambiguous" than I.

  16. AB said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

    "Berlusconi Paid for Sex"

  17. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

    A surprising number of commenters seem not to have noticed that Dr. Sedivy herself wrote:

    > Notice, for example, that in order to get the active reading of the headline, the verb has to be interpreted as being in the past tense, which is a bit unusual for headlinese, where news events tend to be reported in the present tense. Normally the active version of our news headline might read as: Occupy protesters offer lesson in free speech. (For instance, a bit of news reporting on the same page was headlined: Researchers warn about too-loud toys.) But in the context of a retrospective piece of writing about lessons learned over the past year, the past tense would plausibly be used, even in a headline.

    This is a rather long passage for so many readers to have, apparently, so thoroughly missed. I imagine there's some selection bias at work — readers who missed this passage were probably more likely to comment, to point out something obvious that they thought was absent from the post — but even so, it's surprising.

    I suppose this sort of thing must be part of why Dr. Pullum grew fed up with comments.

    [(js) It does tax the patience, I have to admit. I try to maintain serenity in the face of such hints of inattention by telling myself that these are the folks who are undoubtedly so addicted to LL that they can't possibly help themselves from dipping in and fixing one eyeball on the blog while conversing with their spouses/driving down the freeway/flying airplanes/writing their bar exams. And that they will surely be back for a far more leisurely read once other immediate obligations subside.]

  18. John Roth said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 11:08 pm

    I got the passive interpretation without noticing that there was another way of interpreting it. Now that you point it out, I can see the alternative, but it doesn't seem natural. Saying that they were offering a lesson in free speech doesn't make sense in context: they were offering a lesson on the maldistribution of income.

  19. John L said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 12:57 am

    Surely to convey Dr. Sedivy's original interpretation, the headline would have to have read "Occupy protesters offered us lesson in free speech", or perhaps "Occupy protesters offered us a lesson in free speech", which sounds a bit better.

    I confess to "dipping in and fixing one eyeball on the blog" while [doing something else], so I'm not sure if this point has been made already. There can also be contextual clues to the intended reading of ambiguous headlines: in a dead tree paper, "year-end, low-calorie servings of retrospective meta-journalism" may appear in an editorial section rather than being surrounded by other articles of news news. In an online version the article might also have a prominent heading such as "Opinion".

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 1:08 am

    I had no trouble with this headline, for the reasons people have mentioned, but I did have trouble with one in a historical context: FDR warned of Pearl Harbor attack days in advance.

  21. mollymooly said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    @Jerry Friedman: similarly, last week I read Thatcher warned of defence cuts dangers before Falklands war and selected the correct reading based on the source being The Guardian rather than The Daily Telegraph.

  22. Brian C. said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    I read "offered' in the passive voice from the beginning, but since "lesson" was singular I assumed it was a metaphorical lesson.

  23. Trimegistus said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    If the Occupistas were the ones giving a lesson in free speech, I think the standard Headlinese would be "Occupy Protesters Offer Lesson In Free Speech." In headlines, everything is happening right now, unless it's a revelation about some past event — "Man Was Drinking Before Crash, Says Witness" or whatever.

  24. Bobbie said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    Since this was labeled as a possible crash blossom, I considered **both versions (active and passive) of the word "offered." I guessed that is was an Op-Ed piece on the lessons we all learned about free speech because of the Occupy Movement. Too bad I was wrong!

  25. CSB said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    I also understood the headline's intended meaning. For me the key contextual subtlety was not the verb tense but the subject. To get the year-end retrospective meaning, I would have expected a word that didn't refer to individuals, as in "Occupy Protests Offered Lessons…."

  26. Chandra said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

    @John Roth – I entirely disagree. The protesters weren't offering a lesson about the maldistribution of income; they were demanding an alternative to it. However, it's quite plausible to see how someone could view their actions and the subsequent conflicts that took place as a kind of lesson to society about how free speech works (or doesn't). Perhaps not an intentional lesson on the part of the protesters, but a lesson nonetheless.

  27. Charlie Kyle said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    I'm surprised no one's offered an ironical interpretation: protesters required lesson in free speech costs them $355.

  28. Dan T. said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    I saw it (properly) as the protestors being offered a lesson, though I wasn't sure whether this lesson would be actual or metaphorical, and I certainly had no clue that they were actually being compelled by a judge to pay somebody for such a lesson (free speech isn't free!). A more likely scenario in my head would be that some court ruling or other event served as a figurative lesson in free speech to the Occupy movement, or alternatively that some of the protestors had an opportunity to get an actual lesson, such as perhaps that some academic expert in free-speech issues was planning a lecture targeted at Occupy-movement protestors (perhaps at one of their general assemblies) to educate them on what sorts of protests they could constitutionally and legally get away with in the future.

    Before the Occupy movement arose, the sentence would have been much harder to parse, given that "occupy" is a verb, so the sentence would look like somebody was being told to occupy some protestors (not really possible unless one has a method of possessing somebody else's brain).

  29. Ellen K. said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

    I got both meanings before clicking "Read the rest of this entry".

    The first one I got was the passive interpretation: Someone offered the protestors a lesson in free speech. That didn't make sense to me (even though it was the correct interpretation), because I was missing important details to make it make sense.

    Given that, and given that I'm reading it here, and given that we were told to make mental note of what we thought the headline was about, I didn't stop thinking about it and go on reading, but rather right after that got the other interpretation: That it was a retrospective piece looking over the past year, one that was making the claim that the doings of the occupy protestors in some way offered us a lesson in free speech.

    Though not the first interpretation I came up with, the latter is the one I found more plausible. It hadn't occurred to me that they were being offered the lesson as a punishment for their crimes, nor that the lesson was about the limits of free speech, important details without which the correct interpretation doesn't make sense.

    The FDR headline that Jerry Friedman quotes is a good illustration of how the past tense interpretation of a headline can be valid even when it's not the correct interpretation. And just as a headline about FDR would use the past tense, a headline for an article offering a retrospective look over the past year (rather than telling us about something that just happened) would use the past tense.

  30. David Walker said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

    Ah yes, ambiguity in the English language.

    I recently read most of a 10-page "special advertising section" in a magazine. The section was devoted to Oman and its leader, who has been in power for 40 years.

    Leaving aside any political issues, I gathered that the section had been written by a non-native speaker of English, although most of it was quite well done.

    One thing struck me as odd in the section: A large construction project of some sort was described, followed by a mention that "even more development has been tabled". I think, from the context and the overall glowing-ness of the prose, that more development was "ON the table", or had been proposed.

    It's amazing that our brains can handle such ambiguities; "tabled" is such a subtle word. If all options (to fix a problem) are "on the table", then everything is possible; and yet, when a proposal or a legislative bill has been tabled, it has been taken "off the table" rather than still being "on the table".

    What an amazing language, and brain, we have!

  31. Ellen K. said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

    @David: I believe that difference in the use of the word "table" is a British vs. U.S. usage thing.

  32. Gracen D said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

    I think i can take the ambiguity one step further.

    Does "Occupy protesters" mean the people engaged in the Occupy protest, or the people who are annoyed by the people engaged in the Occupy protest? It could easily be that people opposed to Occupy have been offered a little training in free speech….

  33. Dan T. said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 7:32 am

    I think a protest against the Occupy protestors would be an "Occupy counterprotest".

  34. Ø said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 8:10 am

    @David: Yes, this is a famous example of Separated by a Common Language. It seems that in the UK to "table" a topic means to decide to discuss it, whereas in the US it means to set it aside as something to be discussed later but not now.

  35. David Walker said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    Ah, I didn't know about the difference between the British and American difference of "Table". Thanks. Still, in the American language, there is a difference between something being "on the table" and being "tabled" which I find interesting.

  36. Gregg Painter said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

    I think one's views on the Occupy protestors and the media/government establishment did indeed color my reading of the headline. I immediately assumed, cynically (and apparently correctly) that they were being given a lesson in limits of free speech, perhaps by being fired upon or ejected from a public or private place. That they were required to pay good money to learn how 1st Amendment rights are no longer what they once were has done little to alleviate my cynicism, I'm afraid.

  37. Barney said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    @Brett: I haven't seen that episode of Good Neighbours, but I think the fluster over the use of 'one' is likely to have been a joke about class. 'One', to refer to either the speaker or people in general is seen as an upper class usage, and perhaps sometimes as conveying an arrogant assumption that the speakers own thoughts or behaviours are shared by (right thinking/acting) people in general.

    Presumably the character was making an effort not to be seen to be sort of person who would use 'one' like that.

  38. Janice Byer said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    David, yes, on this side of the pond, we have both "on the table" and "tabled" and, too, "off the table", the last meaning, as it sounds, furthest yet removed from consideration, being synonymous with "shelved". Then, there's "circular filed" for proposals that are "DOA". We Yanks might just have the proverbial 50 words for pushing paper about, hee, in lieu of pushing business through.

  39. ajay said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    To my American ear, the joke made no sense, since "one" is, to me, a marker that one is specifically not speaking about oneself

    So if an American said "One cannot simply walk into Mordor" it would be equivalent to saying "You lot wouldn't be able to walk into Mordor, but I'd have no problem"? Interesting.

  40. Ellen K. said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 1:12 pm


    Well, to my American ears, "one" is a marker that one is not specifically speaking about oneself, but it certainly does not exclude oneself. And if one said "One cannot simply walk into Mordor", that would certainly include oneself.

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