What exactly did Romney win?

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Today's crash blossom likely involves multiple aborted landings:

Romney wins mask lingering questions about his candidacy

Since the word wins occurs much more often as a verb than as a noun, you have a good excuse if you needed to take several runs at this one. Just what exactly did Romney win? A rubber Ronald Reagan mask? A mask-lingering contest? The right to ask or answer questions about lingering masks? It takes some untangling of the parser to get to the intended reading where Romney wins is the compound noun subject of the verb phrase mask lingering questions about his candidacy.

Bad enough as a headline, but CNN's website has a nasty setup. By the time you've finally sorted out the main headline, you then have to contend with the "Breaking News" headline in the embedded video:


Recovery from a garden path sentence involves suppressing the misleading alternatives to keep them from drowning out the correct reading. And I'm guessing that at least a few people will have suppressed the subject-verb reading of Romney wins a trifle too successfully in shifting between the first and second occurrences of the phrase. I, for one, found myself wondering for a fleeting moment: What does it mean to maine caucuses?

[Thanks to Jeff Runner for finding this gem.]


  1. Philip S. Huff said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    Is there a problem with "Romney's wins mask lingering questions about his candidacy"? It is two characters more and makes the headline instantly comprehensible.

  2. Peter said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    They even make the trifecta, with that little ticker headline “Myanmar authorities release detained monk”. After all the backtracking on Romney’s wins, my parser was so out-of-kilter that I honestly read it first with “release” as the noun (a press release, perhaps or more like a release of captive-bred condors?) and “detained” as the main verb.

  3. kenny said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

    I just showed my wife this very same crash blossom, only to come onto Language Log a couple hours later and find it here! I am so proud of myself.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

    I wonder how unusual I am for getting the reading right the first time. I think that's due to not reading it in order. My eyes hit first what's in the middle of the screen, and immediately start interpreting, so I'd already started parsing it by the time I got to the word "Romney".

  5. John said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    I suggest "Romney's wins mask lingering questions about his candidacy" as an improvement.

    And it's plausible that the release of the Myanmar authorities detained a monk (while he was travelling somewhere).

  6. Julie Sedivy said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    An update:

    CNN's website has now changed the deviant headline to the following unambiguous version, opting for a slightly less parsimonious fix than the one suggested by John and Philip:

    Romney victories mask lingering questions about his candidacy


  7. Sarah Glover said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 2:16 am

    Ellen K. is not alone. I got it right first time too.

  8. Dr. Decay said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 4:05 am

    I'm with Ellen K. and Sarah. It took me 3 passes to understand why this sentence attracted LL's attention. I've been following the primaries and so I perhaps guessed the intention long before parsing the sentence.

  9. Peter said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 4:05 am

    Got it right the first time as well. I think "lingering questions about his candidacy" is just too … normal … and surprising clear and verbose for a headline, to allow "mask" to be easily taken as a noun.

  10. Acilius said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    I grant you it's a short garden path, but a haunting one. What Mr Romney wants to win, of course, is the US presidency. Whatever else that office may be, it is in human terms very much a mask. So if his wish were to be granted, Mr Romney of Belmont, Massachusetts would early next year become Mr President of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.

  11. Ellen K. said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

    Peter, the thing is, is someone reads the headline starting at the beginning, then "lingering questions about his candidacy" doesn't affect how they read "Romney wins", because they haven't gotten to it. Perhaps you, like me, don't tend to read headlines starting at the beginning. I can certainly understand that, when reading "Romney wins" first, it's easy to read "wins" as a verb, and once one gets that interpretation in one's head, one might not immediately let go of it even after reading the rest. On the other hand, if one's eyes rest first on "lingering questions", one may perhaps be more likely to get the correct reading on the first try.

  12. Mark F. said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    Parsimony is not the only desideratum in headline writing. My impression is that there is a fairly strong preference against possessives in headlines at most news organizations. The original reason for leaving them out was to save space, but once the pattern is formed it's important for a headline to look like a headline. (The NYT may be an exception as their headlines tend to be a bit more discursive.)

  13. Boris said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

    I got it on second reading, as soon as I got to "mask"

  14. Pharaoh Magnetic said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    I can't help but suspect that "Romney wins mask" was intentional. Upon reading the headline, my first thought was that it made reference to the so-called "Mormon Mask" phenomenon, as discussed on Andrew Sullivan's blog here:

    Original Post
    Follow-up Discussion

    For someone whose mien is so mask-like, the headline was indeed unfortunate.

  15. DMajor said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    The wealthy always win the best stuff anyway. Here it is Carnival season and I'm lucky if I can scrape up enough for a single mask lingering question, while Mitt goes and wins a full set of them. Probably won't use most them either, I'll bet.

    This is worse than that headline back during the 2008 primaries when some newspaper claimed "Romney Makes South Carolina Swing". Really? He's stiff as a starched cardboard cutout of Mitt Romney and those people invented the Charleston.

  16. John Swindle said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 10:59 pm

    The switch from "Romney wins mask" to "Romney wins Maine" is nice!

    Meanwhile, in today's news from Hawaii:

    Wash your produce and skirt disease, ill man urges

    The link is to a truncated version. The full article requires a paid subscription.

  17. Peter said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 2:16 am

    @Ellen K. maybe I have a less forgiving sense of what a crash blossom is to me, which is that it takes multiple reads, trying different paths in the garden, and then still not entirely sure I chose the right path afterwards. It's the journey, not the destination, and this one is more of a bump bud than a crash blossom. (Wow, I'm mixing metaphors here.)

    It's like a Rubik's cube that's well scrambled, compared to one that is just one turn away from being solved. Both still puzzles, but solving the latter is not very satisfying, like "solving" this crash blossom. (Not a perfect analogy, I know.)

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