"Hospitals named after sandwiches kill five"

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Sherlocution Holmes is an entertaining UK-based Twitter presence with a bio that reads, "Consultant detective tracking down the best (and worst!) linguistics and language examples." Many of the tweets are humorous illustrations of structural or semantic ambiguity, including many examples of "crash blossoms" — those double-take headlines that are ambiguous enough to be laughably misinterpreted. Here's one popular recent tweet.

It turns out that this is recycled from a tweet last June from the author Adam Macqueen:

The headline appeared in the (UK) Times on June 18, though the online version of the article now features slightly different wording: "Hospital trusts named after sandwiches kill five." (The headline was also noted in the Straight Dope and Black Cat Bone forums.)

Here are tree diagrams for the two possible readings of the headline:

In the intended reading, "named" is the main verb (with the copula "are" deleted as is typical in headlinese), while in the misparsed version, "named" is the verb in the reduced relative clause "named after sandwiches." It's similar to the type of ambiguity found in the classic garden-path sentence, "The horse raced past the barn fell" (where "raced" can be interpreted as the main verb or as the verb in the reduced relative clause "raced past the barn").

Replies to the tweets from Macqueen and Sherlocution Holmes took the idea of "hospitals named after sandwiches" and ran with it.

And so on.



29 Comments

  1. Craig said,

    October 14, 2019 @ 10:20 pm

    I suspect many hospitals kill more than five every year even if they're not named after sandwiches.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    October 14, 2019 @ 10:56 pm

    Meanwhile, hospitals named after appetizers kill 10

  3. Luke said,

    October 14, 2019 @ 11:45 pm

    This made me laugh out loud repeatedly.

  4. Jamie Hope said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 12:16 am

    Hmm, I wonder if these sandwich hospitals ever collaborate with the Mayo Clinic?

  5. martin schwartz said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 1:01 am

    just after I read this I received an article from UC Berkeley's HR:
    "OCTOBER IS BULLYING AWARENESS PREVENTION MONTH".
    Obvious q's:
    Is the month designated in order to to prevent awareness of bullying?
    Is someone named October (brother or sister of
    April, May, June ,and July), or the month after which he/she is named, bullying the Awareness Prevention Month? If the latter, out of
    endocalendric rivalry?
    Interesting that this was send out in midmonth, leaving one with a mere fortnight to celebrate, cerebrate, calibrate, calendrate, or whatever one does for such an event.
    Martin Schwartz

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 1:04 am

    Even the correct reading is a bit of a head-scratcher.

    "What shall we call these new hospitals?"

    "Let's wait for an outbreak of food poisoning, then we'll decide."

  7. Narushi said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 2:58 am

    The first thing I fancied was sandwitches eating people and holspitals being allocated for treating them, which turned out to be the correct parsing.

  8. Jamie said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 3:10 am

    @Gregory Kusnick Very good. Also a good example of the difference between two sources of ambiguity — structural and semantic

  9. John Swindle said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 3:50 am

    According to the online version of the story, the five who died had eaten sandwiches at the hospitals concerned. They didn't eat the offending sandwiches somewhere else and then go to the hospitals for treatment. The headline and first sentence of the print version as pictured above could be read either way, even after ruling out the hospitals' being named for sandwiches.

  10. neminem said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 7:08 am

    Interestingly, the fixed one, while clearly better than the original, is *still* a garden path – I first read that with "trusts" as the verb, as in "Hospital trusts (the) named (people) after sandwiches kill five".

    Meanwhile, I feel compelled to point out that the first time I saw "the horse raced past the barn fell", my mind went a totally third direction, and didn't even treat it as a garden path and didn't get why it was one! "Fell", noun: "a hill or stretch of high moorland, especially in northern England." "We've got a few barns, but that one's over by where the hills start. Anyway, that's where the horse ran off." :D

  11. B.Ma said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 8:47 am

    What is so difficult about adding a few qualifying words: "Hospitals whose sandwiches killed five revealed" or does this sound too "catchy"?

  12. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 8:51 am

    It took me years, if not decades, to get the thing about 'fruit flies like a banana'. Of course it does, if it doesn't fly like an apple instead.

  13. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    if only they had gone with standard 'Sandwich Kill Hospitals Named'…

  14. Laura Gittlen said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 12:34 pm

    Are there other condiment clinics besides the Mayo?

  15. Cervantes said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 1:31 pm

    And there's this: Elizabeth Warren revealed she was sexually harassed by a former mentor—at his own funeral

    Neat trick that.

  16. Chandra said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

    @B.Ma – Or simply replace "named" with "identified".

  17. Peter said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 2:18 pm

    I mean, the sandwich was named a long time I ago. I'm surprised hospitals that were named sometime after that haven't killed lots more than 5.

  18. David Morris said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 2:57 pm

    The Earls of Sandwich have the surname Montagu, so maybe there's a Montagu Hospital somewhere, whether or not it was/is named after them.

  19. Scott P. said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 10:51 am

    Are there other condiment clinics besides the Mayo?

    Well, there is the Heinz Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center…

  20. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 11:56 am

    My inner copywriter wants to change this to something like "Hospitals named in Sandwich Deaths". That's not so bad. or even "Hospitals Blamed in Sandwich Deaths"

    I know it makes it sound like the sandwiches died, but at least it's less likely to spark that interpretation

  21. Slowpoke said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 3:36 pm

    A few weeks ago the BBC ran this headline: Bodies found in Canada hunt for murder suspects.

  22. Viseguy said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 9:35 pm

    @Cervantes: You remind me of the transcript of a closing argument I had occasion to read some decades ago: "The defendant testified that he had oral sex with the victim three times: at the preliminary hearing, before the grand jury, and at trial."

  23. Anthony said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 10:13 pm

    I don't know if pepper qualifies as a condiment, nor if a building at the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda MD) is hospital-like, but there is one named after Claude Pepper.

  24. Y said,

    October 16, 2019 @ 10:46 pm

    I learned the hard way to avoid Knuckle Sandwich Hospital.

    But seriously, most of these kind of ambiguities don't exist in spoken English, thanks to intonation. Why isn't intonation integrated with syntactical treatments of English, except as an esoteric subfield?

  25. January First-of-May said,

    October 17, 2019 @ 7:12 am

    Why isn't intonation integrated with syntactical treatments of English, except as an esoteric subfield?

    It apparently is for Russian, though for all I know it might still be an esoteric subfield that I only happen to know about because I follow the blog of one of the linguists involved (Anna Korostelyova, who is also a famous web-fiction author).

    Incidentally, I also initially guessed Gregory Kusnick's reading after I figured out the crash blossom one, and in terms of the original crash blossom, don't find the new headline to be any better (in fact, I'd expect that hospital trusts are more likely to be named after sandwiches than actual hospitals are).

  26. Jenny Chu said,

    October 17, 2019 @ 5:49 pm

    Hear, hear, Y! I fondly imagine that when the aliens meet us, they will be just as surprised to learn that we ignore intonation in (for example) writing as I was to learn that some writing systems don't include vowels.

  27. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 18, 2019 @ 10:19 am

    For transcripts of spoken language, I can see that some way of notating prosody is useful, and indeed punctuation serves that purpose to some extent.

    But for genres like drama and poetry, I wouldn't want prosody and intonation to be prescribed by the text. There has to be some latitude for interpretation.

  28. matt regan said,

    October 18, 2019 @ 3:56 pm

    Personally, I consider it a remarkable safety record, since sandwiches were named some time around 1765, and thousands of hospitals have been named since.

  29. Anthony said,

    October 28, 2019 @ 4:33 pm

    Looks like a headline from The Onion

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