Guilty gloves

« previous post | next post »

There was some discussion earlier this morning ("Editors without judgment") about editorial culpability for misreadings due to the ambiguity of post-modifier attachment. In that headline (…a space for women without judgment), the problem the problem was a PP modifier (without judgment) that should attach "high", i.e. to an earlier NP (a space … without judgment), and creates an unfortunate misreading if attached "low" (women without judgment). I implicitly blamed this on the inattentive sub-editor who wrote the headline. But really, it's the fault of the English language, for having no good way to indicate where post-modifiers should attach.

Here's an example where the problem goes in the opposite direction — Hannah Ellis-Petersen, "NHS rubber gloves made in Malaysian factories accused of forced labour", Guardian 12/9/2018.

Not that other languages lack analogous problems. Maybe the fault really lies in the lack of the prosodic dimension in writing, as Dwight Bolinger suggested more than 60 years ago ("The narrow end of the funnel"). Or maybe we're just using language for more complicated concepts than it was developed to express, especially under the length constraints of headlines.

The obligatory screenshot:

[h/t Mark Dowson]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 9:24 am

    I think that "especially under the length constraints of headlines" is the key element. Without such a constraint, the author could have written "NHS rubber gloves made in Malaysian factories which stand accused of forced labour" and all (as far as I can see) would have been clear and unambiguous.

  2. Annie Gottlieb said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 10:42 am

    These never cease to entertain me. I've been collecting them in a blog thread:

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 10:48 am

    I don't think that, in this case, "it's the fault of the English language" but rather of the headline-writing convention of copula avoidance. Had the headline been "NHS rubber gloves are made in Malaysian factories accused of forced labour" there would be no ambiguity.

  4. mg said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 2:56 pm

    I think a lot of the fault is on the ever-tightening time constraints. Now that stories are posted online immediately, there's less time to check such things. I've seen bloopers much worse than these – ones that are factually incorrect no matter how they read – for stories that did not contain errors.

  5. Rando J Commentatore said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 3:02 pm

    How hard could it be to use punctuation?
    NHS rubber gloves: Made in Malaysian factories accused of forced labour

    I know they have silly rules about headline structure, but in an online world they can afford the extra odd character

  6. Rick Rubenstein said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

    You are overlooking the smoking gun connecting these two stories: women named Hannah. It's not hard to see why such people would cause ambiguity, since it's impossible to tell whether to read their names forward or backward.

  7. Doug said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 8:08 pm

    "But really, it's the fault of the English language, for having no good way to indicate where post-modifiers should attach."

    Do you know of any devices used in other languages to avoid this ambiguity?

  8. Ken said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 8:15 pm

    @Doug: Noun classes could clear up some of the ambiguity, since "accused" would be modified to match "factories", not "gloves" – assuming the two fell into different classes.

  9. Sean Richardson said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 8:20 pm

    The worst part of the length constraint these days is its indeterminacy. How's this for a headline? "Getting around Trump: Trudeau focuses on other 'levers' to end". Yes, that is the way it appears as syndicated on a content deliver network, without even an ellipsis, for a story about an interview yet to appear on tonight's newscast on CBC (so it is not on their website yet). Clicking through, and the rest of the headline appears: "tariffs". That's on a tablet. The same feed on a small phone gives the whole headline — it is allowed to wrap rather than get clipped, there.

    So on the one hand I can have some sympathy for editors ordering words in a headline to maximize chances of click-through, but on the other I have none for those who knowingly clip a headline just after a transitive verb, so there is no telling what the story is about without clicking through. Yes, half the time the clipping is automatic — and somebody sets the length.

    All that said, I see the culprit in this case as the implicit need in headlinese to prioritize NHS over Malaysian, because otherwise "Malaysian factories accused of forced labour make NHS rubber gloves" says it clearly. But if that headline got clipped just before NHS, well, the * did/said what?* priming would not be as strong for a Guardian readership. Oh, pragmatics.


  10. rosie said,

    December 10, 2018 @ 1:50 am

    "It's the fault of the English language". Is it, or is it rather a consequence of trying to capture, in a linear text, a meaning whose structure is not linear?

  11. Keith said,

    December 10, 2018 @ 4:45 am

    I recently bought a book whose title is "Improved Grassland Management".

    So, is it about "the improved management of grassland", or "the management of improved grassland"?

  12. philip said,

    December 10, 2018 @ 9:37 am

    Indeed, Keith, and the same applies to 'local government services': services supplied by local government (city councils, etc) or (national) government services that are supplied locally?

    When translating these car-crashes into Irish, usually one of the modifiers goes into the genitive and one of them is an adjective, and this clarifies the meaning. Problem is that sometimes the author of the English is not sure which of the meanings is meant!

  13. maidhc said,

    December 11, 2018 @ 4:15 am

    philip: I've heard it said by several people involved in translation issues, that Irish is a much clearer language than English. Thus there are difficulties translating these fuzzy English phrases into clear Irish.

  14. Rose Eneri said,

    December 12, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

    Just as I blame Robocalls on the people who respond to them (as opposed to those who make them), I blame intentionally ambiguous headlines on the people who click on them. Daphne, on the "Frasier" TV show pointed out this phenomenon when she told of the newspaper headline "PM Caught Wearing Women's Cloths." The PM in question was Margaret Thatcher, but as Daphne points out, "By then, you'd already bought the paper!"

  15. ktschwarz said,

    December 12, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

    @Keith, philip: Claude Piron, an experienced translator for the UN and WHO, wrote in an article well worth reading about translating ambiguous language:

    The more a language uses precise and clear-cut grammatical devices to express the relationships among words and, within a given word, its constitutive concepts, the easier the task for the translator. The worst source languages for translators are thus English and Chinese.

    He has a large collection of adjectives attached to English noun-piles, like your "improved grassland management" and "local government services", which must be disambiguated on translation into French. For example, the International Civil Aviation Organization is Organisation de l'aviation civile internationale, not Organisation internationale de l'aviation civile, because it governs only international flight; it is not an international organization governing all flight.

RSS feed for comments on this post