Spree trails ruin

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From BobW:

"Saw this and immediately thought of Language Log. Whatever are they doing with all those spree trails?":

"With Deutsche Bank’s help, an oligarch’s buying spree trails ruin across the US heartland

Secret transactions, lost jobs, worker injuries, gutted buildings, unpaid bills: Ihor Kolomoisky’s untold American legacy"

By Michael Sallah and

I think that most people encountering this string of oddly concatenated words would stop and do a double take as they try to make sense of it:  "oligarch’s buying spree trails ruin".  With my eyeballs whirling around in my head, I thought:  whatever are they trying to say?  But then I calmed down and recollected that the hardest word, "spree", is one that I had myself used in a Yuletide greeting in 2013.  With "spree" (a sudden outburst of activity) nailed down in the center, the other words fell into place.

Aside from the unusual, refractory wording, the thing that pained me the most about this article is that the culprit responsible for the death and destruction, Ihor Kolomoisky, seems to have focused on northeastern Ohio (Warren, Cleveland), where I grew up.  The opening scene is at a hospital in Akron, only 25 miles from my old home in Canton.  The site of the big factory explosion described in Warren is 60 miles from Canton.

Rust belt predator on a spree!


  1. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 3:31 pm

    Try this one: "Dissertators with Distantly Related Foci Face Divergent Near-Term Outcomes" https://privpapers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3696193&dgcid=ejournal_htmlemail_nber:working:paper:series_abstractlink

  2. Daniel said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 3:36 pm

    The hard part of this one is the use of "trails" as a verb, coupled with "ruin" as a mass noun. Those words would usually have the opposite roles "trails(noun) ruin(verb)", but then we notice that "ruin" doesn't have a direct object and "spree trails" doesn't make sense as a compound.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 3:47 pm

    The oft-deprecated passive voice might actually help here, albeit at the cost of adding a few words, which can be a problem in headlinese, although you can also subtract a few to try to net it out. But I think "trail of ruin across U.S. heartland left by oligarch's buying spree" is clear enough, and you can stick in "with Deutche Bank's help" either before it or after it.

  4. Ross Presser said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 4:08 pm

    Am I the only one that fixated on "spree trails" and imagined candy laid in a trail?

  5. Daniel said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 4:44 pm

    J.W. Brewer, you added a few extra words that clarified it. With those extra words, it's fine even in active voice:
    "An oligarch's buying spree left a trail of ruin across the US heartland."

    A true passive construction of the original would be,
    "The US heartland was trailed ruin by an oligarch's buying spree,"
    which does break up the problematic cluster, although it still preserves the unusual "trail ruin" verb-phrase.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 6:24 pm

    @Daniel, actually I think the true passive variant of the original would be "ruin was trailed across the US heartland by an oligarch's buying spree." Which sounds odd outside of a poem, although not necessarily odder than your formulation.

  7. Daniel Barkalow said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 6:41 pm

    For me "shopping/buying spree" is enough of a fixed phrase that I wouldn't have split it. On the other hand, I find "trails" for "leaves a trail of" to be very odd, particularly due to "trails" more often meaning "follows after", exactly the opposite of the sequence here.

  8. Alison said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 9:30 pm

    There is a third strange reading of this. The main river that that runs through Berlin is called the Spree, and seeing Deutsche Bank at the beginning of the sentence immediately put me in that frame of mind. So "an oligarch [is] buying Spree trails…"

  9. Maurice Waite said,

    September 24, 2020 @ 9:34 pm

    I agree that "trails" is the main cause of this 'crash blossom', rather than the possibility of mistakenly perceiving "an oligarch is buying…", since "is" is not often contracted in headlines—especially not after a noun, presumably because it could be taken as a possessive marker, as here—and the use of the continuous present (other than with a future sense) is also quite unusual, compared with "oligarch buys…".

  10. Miquel Calçada i Olivella said,

    September 25, 2020 @ 8:04 am

    Good news for you:

    CLEVELAND, Ohio — Federal prosecutors and agents are investigating a Ukrainian oligarch ( Ihor Kolomoisky ) with business ties to real estate in Cleveland and a now-shuttered steel mill in the Mahoning Valley.

  11. Jeremy said,

    September 25, 2020 @ 9:12 am

    I immediately thought it must be "buying spree trails RUN across the US heartland"!

  12. Greg said,

    September 25, 2020 @ 9:39 am

    Is this perhaps a dialect issue? As a BrEng speaker the headline gave me no pause at all; a "buying spree" is a well-established noun phrase and "to trail ruin" seems perfectly natural to me. (Likewise, Thomas Hutcheson's paper title was no problem either, but my background is mathematics and my day-job is fairly technical so I'd have been more surprised if I'd not parsed it at a glance.

  13. Terry K. said,

    September 25, 2020 @ 10:53 am


    Not sure on the dialect issue. To my (AmE) ears, "to trail ruin" doesn't sound wrong, but it wasn't at all an obvious reading and it took me a while to get that understanding. The headline was definitely a puzzler. "Spree" did not contributed any difficulty. I'm not sure how common "buying spree" is, but it's close enough to "shopping spree", which is quite ordinary.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    September 25, 2020 @ 12:47 pm

    As a fellow Briton, I would agree with Greg. Neither the headline nor the paper title appeared ambiguous or presented any difficulty in parsing.

  15. SlideSF said,

    September 25, 2020 @ 12:58 pm

    To my ears, to trail something is to follow it, not to create a trail. So in this case the ruin is already there, caused by whatever. The oligarch's buying spree is merely taking advantage of the presumably low prices afforded by that ruin. That's the way capitalism works, whether for oligarch or the common person. We all want a deal.

  16. Mensch Meier said,

    September 25, 2020 @ 1:28 pm

    Berlin has some very nice running trails along the Spree with industrial ruins. Unfortunately Deutsche Bank-funded oligarchs are buying real estate here like crazy, so it all checks out.

  17. Stephen Hart said,

    September 25, 2020 @ 7:10 pm

    Daniel said,

    "The hard part of this one is the use of "trails" as a verb…"

    As a native US West Coaster, I don't have any problem with "trails" as a verb: The dog trails the squirrel, for example.

    But the meaning here is not follows or sniffs out, but scattered:

    "In his wake, Kolomoisky and his associates left a trail of empty, boarded-up buildings…"

  18. Terry Hunt said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 3:40 am

    I'm with other Brits above in not having found any problem with the wording. It occurs to me that "buying spree" is a term quite familiar to me, and serves as a 'navigation point' for parsing the sentence overall – perhaps it's used more frequently in UK media than in the US.

    Another factor might be that the noun "trail[s]" occurs less frequently in the UK – we usually refer to our long-distance coutryside walking/riding routes as "paths."

  19. Thiago Ribeiro said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 7:26 pm

    I agree with Daniel: "the hard part of this one is the use of 'trails' as a verb, coupled with 'ruin' as a mass noun".

  20. Andrew Usher said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 8:18 pm

    Yes. I also consider 'trails' as a verb unusual, especially with this meaning. I think the headline writer was going for elegant variation here: surely 'spreads' would be no worse, and prevent the unintended reading.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 2:35 am

    For me (a Briton), "trails" in this context implies "leaves a trail", and therefore I find the usage unexceptionable. "Trails" implies "in his wake"; "spreads" does not, and I think that that is the key difference, which could explain why this particular verb was chosen.

  22. Andrew Usher said,

    September 30, 2020 @ 10:00 pm

    But if the meaning were 'in his wake', then it would be the oligarch, not his spree, that 'trailed ruin'. There's no debate over the meaning, once you get it, but the wording is not the most natural, certainly. You could indeed say 'left ruin in its wake' (or a synonym for 'left') but that would be longer and avoided in a headline.

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