Unambiguous crash blossom

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This one isn't ambiguous, as far as I can tell — it just doesn't mean what the headline writer wanted it to mean: "Buried Alive Fiance Gets 20 Years in Prison", ABC News 1/13/2012.

The story's lede explains what's going on:

A man  who put his fiancée in a cardboard computer box and tried to bury her alive because he was bored with her was sentenced today to 20 years in prison.

Obligatory screenshot:


  1. Ellen K. said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    Seems to me like it means what it's supposed to, though it also seems rather British. "Buried Alive Fiance" refers not to the person buried alive, but someone involved in a buried alive scenario, in this case, the fiance of the fiancee who was buried alive. Or am I missing something? It does seem an unusual construction for an American headline, but, then, this seems to be taking place in the U.K. ("Leeds Crown Court"), so that could perhaps explain the British-style headline.

    [(myl) You're right, I should have written "… it just doesn't mean what the headline writer wanted it to mean, except maybe in the peculiar language of British headlinese". But how far can this go? If "Buried Alive Fiance" can mean "Fiance involved in a buried-alive scenario", could you headline the conviction of a librarian who committed a brutal murder as "Brutally Murdered Librarian Gets Life In Prison"? ]

  2. Hamish Ramsay said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

    It's because the story is so familiar to us now that "Buried Alive" has become shorthand for the subject, and we have no trouble parsing it in the intended manner.

  3. Faldone said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

    Then they go and caption a picture of the buried with a description of the burier.

  4. Andrew said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    Isn't this intending "the fiancé of the buried-alive chick gets…"? But the participle really throws me. I think this structure just isn't used because it means something different than what the author means. I would never read "Assaulted Wife" and think "Hm maybe they mean the wife of an assaulted man. Let me read more to find out."
    So is this a crash blossom, or is it just wrong?

  5. Jon said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

    myl – I read it as 'Buried alive' fiance gets 20 years in prison – that is, the fiance in the 'Buried alive' case. So no, you couldn't have "Brutally murdered librarian gets life in prison", because 'brutally murdered' would never get known as the label for a particular case. Murders are too often brutal. It is the fact that burying alive is rare that allows 'buried alive' to be used as a label for a particular case.

  6. David Epstein said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    Jon–"Devoured by rats fiancé gets 20 years in prison" works fine. I don't think a US headline writer would use this construction. It might be more like "Fed fiancée to rats, Now he's trapped for 20 years."

  7. Jonathon B. said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    Being generally familiar with the backstory from its extensive coverage in the press, I had no problem parsing this headline given the gender cue of single-e fiance in the headline. In contrast, the lede refers to the woman buried alive as the felon's fiancee. Since I know that the recent news stories were about a woman who was buried alive by her betrothed, I had no problem telling that fiance referred to him, not to her.

    But the grammar involved is utterly strange to this American's eyes: the victim who was buried alive becomes merely "buried alive", as if that were her name. Once we treat the victim as if "buried alive" is her name, the headline can be parsed as an instance of what I think is a standard headlinese device of referring to a less-famous person in terms of his or her relationship to a celebrity, e.g. "Jennifer Hudson fiance" to refer to David Otunga. Or is "buried alive" functioning more like a #hashtag, acting as a symbol that clues us in to the topic of the article without being an actual part of the sentence?

  8. Ellen K. said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

    I think it would be "Brutal murder librarian gets life in prison". Though I'm neither British, nor a headline writer.

  9. Steve Kass said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

    Wait, is that the same Marcin Kasprzak who found a shallow grave man who subsequently turned out to be guilty of murder?

    Shallow grave man Marcin Kasprzak found guilty of murder

  10. Harry Campbell said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

    Certainly some punctuation would have helped ("Buried Alive: Fiance Jailed For 20 Years", "Man in 'buried alive' case jailed" — real headlines) but there's something sufficiently catchphrasey about "buried alive", unlike "brutally murdered". (As Jon implies, above.) How about "Lost at sea yachtsman mourns his crew" or "Home alone mum went shopping with friends"? Superficially paradoxical and perhaps better avoided, but not mystifying.

  11. Brett said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

    @Harry Campbell: It isn't mystifying if you're British, but American readers are going to be bewildered. What this appears to be is an instance of an American news site publishing a story that was reported by a British affiliate, without changing the hed to match American conventions.

    This is actually an instance of a more general phenomenon, in which news copy that is only idiomatic in a foreign (usually British) variety of English appears in the American media. I think I have seen this occurring more frequently in the past 5–10 years, and I doubt that I'm just experiencing the recency illusion, because there are natural reasons to expect this kind of mistake to increase in frequency. Large news organizations are cutting staff; it's easier to share news with other outlets around the world; and there's pressure to get information available extremely quickly (via the World-Wide Web and other electronic platforms).

    I don't think I've seen much of this in print media, which tend to produce stories more slowly and have regimented copy editing and headlining steps. The mistakes usually also need to be somewhat subtle to make it through. Even extremely rushed American editors will notice British words that are completely unknown in American English. Yet something like the "buried alive fiance" hed can slip through more easily.

    The American news outlet in which I've noticed the largest number of these kinds of errors is the Public Radio International program The Takeaway. The program gets most of its overseas reporting directly from the BBC, which co-produces the program. It's quite jarring that the hosts often read copy that was clearly written for the BBC World Service, because it may be quite unidiomatic in American English. Even the name of the program, which is supposed to be a play on two meanings of "take away" fails for most Americans.

  12. Janice Byer said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 8:52 pm

    My first take was that some poor dude had been locked by his lover in an underground crypt for some offense and told he'd have to stay there for 20 years.

    My second take was a convicted man, incidentally or coincidentally once buried alive by a fiancee, had been sentenced for a major felony such as murdering his fiancee.

  13. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

    They have either very large computers or very small fiancées.

  14. johnny2hats said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

    I'm a Brit intimately familiar with our media's unique headline-speak, and most of the crash blossoms on this site make perfect sense to me, but I would never parse this one as meaning anything other than the fiance being the one buried alive. It's just a poorly written headline, even by our standards – you can see what they were going for, but the intended meaning doesn't come off at all. Even something like "Buried fiancée fiance" would work better.

  15. JB said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 11:20 pm

    How cruel to be buried alive and then sentenced to 20 years in prison – you'd think the double jeopardy principle would prohibit this.
    Maybe it would be better or clearer if the modifying participle were active/present rather than passive/past. "Burying Alive Fiance…"
    We tolerate a lot of syntactic ambiguity in the language because we can resolve the ambiguities semantically.

  16. maidhc said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

    The San Francisco Chronicle of Friday Jan. 13 headlines a review of the film "Contraband": Wahlberg's chops buoy leaky caper. Sorry I can't seem to find it in the on-line version.

    Thank heaven for the apostrophe!

  17. maidhc said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 11:42 pm

    The review is here, but they didn't keep the headline.

  18. John Swindle said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 12:41 am

    @Steve Kass: I wonder whether the headline use of "murder" for "attempted murder" in the article you linked to is an error or another cultural difference.

    @Brett: "ABC News" is ambiguous, but a Google search on Kelly Cobiella shows that you're right—it's the American network. I had been ready to believe that it was the Australians were the the victims of this British headline and that they would find it unremarkable.

  19. suntzuanime said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 1:54 am

    When I read it I thought that there was a fiance who was buried alive, and "buried alive fiance" was being used to stand in for the event of the burying, and then as the event was receiving punishment it was being coerced to be the agent of the event receiving the punishment. Sort of a double coercion. Would have been interesting, unfortunately the real explanation wasn't quite as convoluted.

  20. Eric P Smith said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 3:40 am

    @Steve Kass

    The headline use of “murder” for “attempted murder” in the Independent article is simply an error. It’s a bad one, and in my experience uncharacteristic of the Independent, which is a National quality newspaper, and usually reliable.

    I agree with Hamish Ramsay and Jon that ‘buried alive’ is being used as a label for the case, and one that will be recognised as such by most Brits. It is not a name for the fiancée, and it is not a hashtag.

  21. Terry Collmann said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 4:50 am

    What johnny2hats said – it's a terrible headline even from a British headline-writing perspective, and I suspect the dread hand of SEO, since most people searching the web for that story would probably just type the words "fiance buried alive", which is probably why they are the first three words in the head.

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 5:37 am

    I think MYL's first take on it was right, and this is completely ungrammatical BrHeadlinese. Then again, I don't know if I count as a native speaker… possibly only sub-editors do.

  23. Nelida said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    My first reaction was, of course, laughing out loud (I had to forcibly restrain myself from LOL'g, you'll notice), but that's what happened. The crash blossom was so funny. As I see it, however, what the writer omitted, was a subject, and proper punctuation. The heading should have read, so as to avoid any charges of ambiguity, like this: Man (or perpetrator, or some other such qualification for this unspeakably horrendous individual) buried alive fiance, gets 20 years in prison. Or, without punctuation: Man who buried fiance alive gets 20 years in prison.

  24. Ellen K. said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    Note to those who haven't picked up on this: Fiance = man. Fiancee = woman. So the fiance in the headline is the man. Though a headline writer really shouldn't expect the readers to pick up on that spelling distinction.

    Not to suggest that this spelling/gender distinction is always used (a quick Google search shows it's not), nor prescriptively suggest that is should. But understanding the headline requires awareness of it.

  25. JB said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 8:59 am

    Man Who Buried Fiance Alive Gets 20 Years.

  26. Nathan said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    @JB: Except the man didn't have a fiance. It's not that sort of couple.

  27. army1987 said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    If you take "buried alive fiancé" to mean "the fiancé of the [person who was] buried alive", it does have the right meaning. ;-)

  28. Steve Bacher said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    And just this morning on the very same American ABC TV News, an item tagged "Homeless Killer." This one was about a suspect picked up for the murders of several homeless persons in the LA area. But without this foreknowledge, no way to assume it wasn't about a killer without a home. (And yes, I know it should have been "alleged killer.")

    – seb

  29. eeden said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

    Even knowing, as I did, the story to which this headline referred, and knowing that the person who was buried alive was the woman, "buried alive fiance" to me still conveys the meaning of "fiance who was buried alive", not " the fiance who buried his fiancee alive".

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  31. Sravana said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

    Speaking of the apostrophe, I would have been a lot happier with "Buried Alive's Fiance Gets 20 Years in Prison."

  32. Alan Moroney said,

    February 3, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    I grew up and live in Brighton, England.
    I completely misread this headline too, it really is badly written – yes, i was wondering why a fiance who had been buried alive got 20 years.

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