Garden path of the week

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This headline puzzled me:

I interpreted it as

Doctors are showing a buried CDC report to top White House officials

And I wondered, what was that report? and why did the CDC bury it? And who are the doctors digging it up?

What the headline actually meant, of course, was

Documents show that top White House officials buried a CDC report

which makes much more sense in the current environment.

Overall, this is a good real-world example of how lexical ambiguity turns into syntactic and semantic ambiguity.

Some of the details from the body of the article:

The decision to shelve detailed advice from the nation’s top disease control experts for reopening communities during the coronavirus pandemic came from the highest levels of the White House, according to internal government emails obtained by The Associated Press. […]

The document, titled “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework,” was researched and written to help faith leaders, business owners, educators and state and local officials as they begin to reopen. It included detailed “decision trees,” or flow charts aimed at helping local leaders navigate the difficult decision of whether to reopen or remain closed.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Friday that the documents had not been approved by CDC Director Robert Redfield. The new emails, however, show that Redfield cleared the guidance. […]

As early as April 10, Redfield, who is also a member of the White House coronavirus task force, shared via email the guidance and decision trees with President Donald Trump's inner circle, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, top adviser Kellyanne Conway and Joseph Grogan, assistant to the president for domestic policy. Also included were Dr. Deborah Birx, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other task force members. […]

On April 24, Redfield again emailed the guidance documents to Birx and Grogan, according to a copy viewed by The AP. Redfield asked Birx and Grogan for their review so that the CDC could post the guidance publicly. Attached to Redfield’s email were the guidance documents and the corresponding decision trees — including one for meat packing plants.

“We plan to post these to CDC’s website once approved. Peace, God bless r3,” the director wrote. (Redfield's initials are R.R.R.)


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 6:41 am

    On a first pass, I invariably omit the "that"s which are implied in speech but which are harder to infer from prose; I then insert them on a second pass, and occasionally remove one on a third.

  2. Paul Mulshine said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 2:55 pm

    Or just rework it: "WH officials buried CDC report, docs show"

    But "docs" is not a good headline word when it can easily be taken to mean "doctors."
    Better to say, "Emails show."

  3. David Morris said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 6:00 pm

    When I read this for the first time yesterday, I took the unintended meaning. When I saw it again this morning, I took the intended one.

    I am trying to figure out whether I would use or understand 'docs' more often as 'doctors' or 'documents'. Being in legal editing, probably the latter, but I would probably say 'Word docs' or 'pdfs'.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 10:23 pm

    Sign near the door of a supermarket in Española, New Mexico:

    Clean carts inside.

    That turned out to mean there were clean shopping carts inside the store, not that we were to clean them there (presumably with disinfecting supplies that the store would provide).

    (I wonder if any customers were confused by the noun, as people here usually say "basket", not "cart". I believe the British say "trolley".)

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 6:38 am

    Jerry — We [Britons] do indeed say "trolley" but we also say "basket". A trolly has four wheels, a basket none or at most two.

  6. Stuart said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 8:18 am

    Is this style of headline not common in US news media? I parsed it correctly ( with the omitted/implicit "that") at first glance on Twitter, and had to pause to work out what the alternatives were.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 9:01 am

    I have no way of knowing whether "this style of headline [is] common in US news media" but I do know that although I correctly inferred the implied "that", I also interpreted "Docs" as "Doctors" and not "Documents". Indeed, it was not until Paul Mulshine pointed it out that the correct interpretation was "Documents" that I even considered that possibility.

  8. Robert Coren said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 9:53 am

    For me (northeastern US), in the context of supermarket shopping, the thing with four wheels that I push around the store is indeed a "cart". A "basket" is a much smaller object, no wheels, held by a handle (or handles) in one hand, and used only if I'm getting a very small quantity of groceries.

  9. Paul Mulshine said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 12:27 pm

    As the one-time best deadline writer in Philadelphia, I can assure that is not common among good headline writers. At my paper the editor would have thrown it back for a rewrite. The predicate is the center of a headline, and burying it is a mortal sin.

  10. Julian said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 7:01 pm

    Yes, the 'that' which introduces a subordinate content clause aka noun clause is often omitted in speech but in writing it's usually better to keep it to avoid this sort of misreading.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 11, 2020 @ 12:13 pm

    Where I grew up (near Cleveland, Ohio), the four-wheeled thing I pushed around a store was called a cart, but here in northern N. M. it's called a basket. I had to think a little to realize it is indeed a rectangular wire basket on four wheels.

    It's usually not distinguished from the hand-carried type, also available in many stores. At a different grocery store this morning, there was a sign that said "Sanitized baskets inside." I didn't know whether that meant the wheeled kind or the hand-carried kind or both. It turned out to be the hand-carried kind.

    I suppose that provides a referent for "handbasket", previously used only for ill-advised trips.

  12. Rodger C said,

    May 12, 2020 @ 10:04 am

    In the South, a "basket" is the hand-carried kind, and the wheeled kind is a "buggy" (though "cart" is of course understood nowadays).

  13. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 13, 2020 @ 1:28 am

    @David Morris:

    To me, "docs" probably most often means specifically Word files (.doc or .docx as opposed to .rtf or whatever).

    When I first saw the offending headline, though, my first interpretation was "doctors".

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    May 13, 2020 @ 3:33 am

    Is it the whole of the Southern Hemisphere, Roger, in which a basket is the hand-carried kind, or just some particular part of it ?

  15. Charlie Cerf said,

    May 13, 2020 @ 1:09 pm

    Ambiguous headlines have become common as copy editors have been "downsized." Often the ambiguity stems from a word that can be both noun and verb. For example, the print edition of the Wall Street Journal (p. A14, 5/11/20): Baseball Pitches Plan to Get Back on the Field in 2020. The eye sees "baseball pitches" and expects a reference to, perhaps, curves and fastballs.

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