Headline writers, crash blossom victims need your help

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A headline from today's BBC News: "Knife crime: St John Ambulance to teach teens to help stab victims."

Way back in 2009, headlines with ambiguous syntax were dubbed "crash blossoms," after members of a copy editor forum noted the headline, "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms." But journalists enjoyed collecting such specimens long before that. The Columbia Journalism Review published an anthology of ambiguous headlinese in 1980 with a title that is a classic of the genre: Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim.

Like that old chestnut, the BBC News headline causes problems because the words following the verb help can be interpreted differently depending on how the parts of speech are parsed: bite in dog bite victim and stab in stab victims can be construed by readers as verbs instead of the intended nouns.

Another crash blossom involving help is a headline from the (UK) Times noted by Mark Liberman in 2017: "Queen Mother tried to help abuse girl." The ambiguity in that one is heightened by the fact that it involves the type of noun-noun compounding often seen in the British press (sometimes extended into spectacular noun piles). Understanding the headline requires knowing that abuse girl refers to a particular girl who was abused. At least the noun-noun compound in the latest BBC headline, stab victims, is a common collocation. But given that the complement of the verb help can begin with either a noun or the bare-infinitive form of a verb, readers have to decide on the fly which part of speech an ambiguous word like stab belongs to. Headline writers might help their audience by being more aware of the crash-blossom potential of help.

(h/t Katy Moon and John Self via Twitter)


  1. ErikF said,

    May 7, 2021 @ 8:01 pm

    Today the CBC put out a headline "Sexual assault training now required for new federally appointed judges" (https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/law-training-sexual-assault-1.6017711) that gave me a similar feeling, although I didn't know that people were actively trained to assault people outside of maybe the military.

  2. Garrett Wollman said,

    May 7, 2021 @ 10:13 pm

    If the BBC subeditor had just used the gerund, "…to help stabbing victims", there would have been no ambiguity. And unlike with a newspaper edited for print, there is no length limitation on web headlines. But presumably the subs at the Beeb have experience editing for newspapers and collocations like "stab victims" come naturally to them.

  3. cameron said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 1:34 am

    Of course they know that "stabbing victims" would remove the ambiguity. I very much doubt any native speaker never employed by a newspaper would ever say "stab victims" rather than "stabbing victims" in that kind of context.

    But funny ambiguous headlines make people link to a story on the Facetubes, and whatnot, so such traditional headlinese crash blossoms are just another kind of clickbait at this point

  4. Chris Partridge said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 2:49 am

    In the UK the legendary examples all date from WW2 for some reason, eg “Monty Flies Back to Front’ and my personal favourite ‘British Push Bottles Up Germans.’

  5. /df said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 3:42 am

    Even "stabbing victims" doesn't really help with the ambiguity. Consider:

    "I'm so busy stabbing victims that I need help stabbing victims."

    But "victims of stabbing(s)" or "knife victims" have a chance.

  6. David Morris said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 6:55 am

    With the usual provisos about Google as a research tool, Ngrams shows the usage of 'stabbing victims' about double that of 'stab victims' and a general Google search shows 119,000 for "stabbing victims" and 86,900 for "stab victims".

  7. Peter Taylor said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 7:12 am

    @Garrett Wollman, if you want to fix the headline you just need to change help to aid, with the added bonus that the context of the St John's Ambulance primes British readers to expect something about first aid.

  8. non-df said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 7:17 am

    /df, please note that "knife" is also a verb (e.g., "he was knifed to death"), so "knife victims" is just as ambiguous as "stab victims".

  9. Anthony said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 7:32 am

    A few decades ago, both Chicago papers covered a local legislative matter. One wrote of "AIDS" programs while the other went with "anti-AIDS."

  10. Robert T McQuaid said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 9:46 am

    What about a hyphen?

    St John Ambulance to teach teens to help stab-victims

  11. PeterL said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 10:12 am

    Are "crash blossoms" more common in the UK, I wonder?
    Might be related to the popularity of cryptic crosswords and related wordplay.
    e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptic_crossword#Double_definition

  12. Dan Romer said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 10:18 am

    Thanks to everyone for making my Saturday morning a bit more of a laugh!

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 11:46 am

    I don't know if they are more common, Peter, but to this UK reader at least the unintentional alternative meaning did not make its presence known for quite some time after first reading it.

  14. Kimball Kramer said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 12:18 pm

    Changing "help" to "aid", or "stab victims" to "stabbing victims" does not remove the ambiguity. But "stabbed victims" does.

  15. Peter Erwin said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 1:21 pm

    Charmingly, the ambiguity is repeated in the text of the story, so it's not just a headline issue:

    "Teenagers from the age of 14 in some areas of the UK will get training on how to help stab victims, in a new scheme launched by St John Ambulance."

  16. J Greely said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 5:36 pm

    I often wish I'd clipped a copy of the Ohio State University newspaper headline from a story about the campus police: "OSU Academy requires rape, cultural training".


  17. AntC said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 5:51 pm

    Sadly that bulwark against ambiguity, the well-placed apostrophe, has just lost a campaigner. obit: founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

  18. Peter Taylor said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 6:24 pm

    @Kimball Kramer, are you really able to read

    Knife crime: St John Ambulance to teach teens to aid stab victims.

    as having the same meaning as

    Knife crime: St John Ambulance to teach teens to aid in stabbing victims.

    ? This L1 British English speaker is not.

  19. Kimball Kramer said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 5:46 am

    @Peter Taylor — How I, personally, might read the two examples and how some other person MIGHT read them are different. In both cases the POSSIBLE ambiguity is, to me, obvious. Its likelihood depends on many factors, including where on the spectrum between skimming and careful study the reading lies. But "teach teams to aid stabbed victims" is highly unlikely to result in an incorrect interpretation, even momentarily.

  20. Philip Anderson said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    While I see the potential ambiguity, my natural inclination is to parse X as a noun in “to help X”, and then “stab victims” is s familiar compound noun.

    Notwithstanding “first aid”, “aid” seems much weaker than “help”, and to have a slightly-different meaning, more like to assist someone, help along.

  21. Cervantes said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 10:23 am

    ABC news seems to do a lot of these.Here's one today:

    Boy, 14, charged in cheerleader's death in court

  22. Thomas Lumley said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 7:41 pm

    "Student fires damaging seal", from the Otago Daily Times, is one of my favorites (https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/student-fires-damaging-seal)

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