Colorless green vaccine-laced M&Ms

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Commenting on the (7/12/2016) headline "US government plans to use drones to fire vaccine-laced M&Ms near endangered ferrets", Joyeuse Noëlle on Tumblr noted that

The best part of this title is that in the second half, each new word is completely unpredictable based on what comes before it.

“US government plans to use drones to fire” okay, I see where this is going

“vaccine-laced” wait

“M&Ms” what

“near” not ‘at’?

“endangered” what

“ferrets” what

That headline is definitely "Too Good to Check", but in fact it's somewhere between misleading and false, according to Kasey Deamer, "No, the US Isn't Using Vaccine-Laced M&Ms to Save Ferrets", Live Science 7/16/2016:

Recent reports have claimed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to save endangered ferrets by firing vaccine-laced M&Ms from drones into the animals' habitats. Though the bizarre-sounding scheme caught the media's attention, agency officials say the reports are misleading.

Yes, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is investigating drones as a way to distribute vaccinations — but not using M&Ms, and not for ferrets directly, agency officials told Live Science.

Headlines are often puzzling, but it's rare to find one that so effectively illustrates Noam Chomsky's 1957 point about the inability of simple word-sequence models to capture the cognitive notion of grammaticality.

Of course, more sophisticated statistical models have no trouble with such things. But still.

[h/t Tim Leonard]


  1. Joe said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

    And I see you're contributing to the increase in probability through the "Furiously green X Ys" blog title convention

  2. chris said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 7:28 pm

    Once you reach the end of the headline it makes more sense, as soon as you infer (1) since the ferrets are endangered, someone is going to want to try to help them, possibly with US government backing, (2) some sort of disease that can be stopped by vaccine is one of the factors endangering the ferrets, and (3) ferrets will readily eat M&Ms. Drones shoot M&Ms, ferrets eat M&Ms, ferrets gain resistance to disease.

    Firing *at* the ferrets would imply an intent to *hit* them with the M&Ms, which would be pointless if they're actually a vaccine delivery system.

    The specificity of M&Ms is one of the things that makes it sound strange, IMO — if you just say "vaccine-laced food" then it sounds less weird even though the plan itself doesn't change at all.

    Weirdness decreases even further if you say the drones are being used to "distribute" the food instead of "fire" it. "Fire" is pretty misleading given that it's not actually being used as a projectile weapon.

    US government plans to use drones to distribute vaccine-laced food near endangered ferrets — that's hardly weird at all, at least compared to the original. Given the way media work today, it seems likely that the weirdness of the headline was deliberately enhanced.

  3. derek said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 5:11 am

    In the spirit of people who complain you can't "fire" an arrow from a bow, I notice the text of the article correcly describes the machine as shooting the pills in three directions.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 10:08 am

    The headline doesn't seem at all parallel to "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" but rather more akin to "My hovercraft is full of eels." CGISF was intended (as it was first explained to me many decades ago, although maybe this is a distinction that no longer makes sense within a Chomskyan framework after the Minimalist thing got rolled out?) to illustrate that a sentence that was "gramatically (i.e. morphosyntactically) well-formed" could still be "semantically ill-formed." But MHIFOE-type sentences are both gramatically and semantically well-formed. They sound bizarre because they are what you might call pragmatically ill-formed. And pragmatics is highly context-dependent, not just because people in particular situations may find themselves plausibly uttering sentences that would have sounded bizarre/weird to them before they found themselves in that situation but because as chris illustrated in a prior comment sometimes it's not that hard to rephrase/paraphrase a pragmatically ill-formed sentence into one that sounds reasonably normal.

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