Saturday, February 25, 2012

another crash blossom

As those who are regular Language Log readers know, a crash blossom is a news headline that leads us to an incorrect parsing of its meaning. In many ways crash blossoms are similar to garden path sentences, the classic one being "The horse raced past the barn fell", which lead us down a metaphorical garden path by presenting information that can be parsed easily into a certain structure, only to ruin our structural hypothesis later on. In the case of "The horse raced past the barn fell", our hypothesis is that "raced" is the main verb of the sentence, rather than part of a relative clause describing the horse. Thus we parse "The horse raced past the barn", and then have to completely redo our structure when we get to "fell".

The crash blossom that caught my eye the other day is similar: "Stepmom charged with murder has baby". The main headline on the full story is no better: "Alabama stepmom charged with girl's murder gives birth". Again we have a relative clause with the relative pronoun omitted, leading us to think that what is in fact part of a relative clause is the main verb of the sentence. So in the full headline, we think the story is about a stepmother in Alabama being charged with murder, when in fact the story is about the woman in question giving birth.

6 comments:

Micha Boettiger said...

Neat, I hadn't noticed those before

Anonymous said...

Fell can be read as an adverb meaning cruelly, if you want a poetic interpretation as well.

Anonymous said...

Or fiercely.

Anonymous said...

Or fell as a postmodifier of barn.

Kevin said...

Strange: I had absolutely no difficulty at all in understanding at first sight "Stepmom charged with murder has baby" or "Alabama stepmom charged with girl's murder gives birth". But I've examined "The horse raced past the barn fell" over and over -- and I've still not the last idea what it means! (Incidentally, headlines rarely contain the word "the". Is it that that's throwing me?)

Ryan Denzer-King said...

Try this: "The horse (that had been) raced past the barn fell."