Ambiguous Headlines

Newspaper headlines have a curious kind of grammar. Because they need to be short, conventions have evolved over the years for what's OK to elide, and how to interpret certain idiomatic constructions. For instance, there's the typical use of the present tense, as in "Man Wedged in Chimney Blames Mary Poppins" [Reuters, 13 Nov 2002]. There's the deletion of definite and indefinite articles and all forms of 'to be,' of course. And there's the particular use of the comma that appears nowhere else, as in "U.S. Seen Expanding Use of Covert Forces in Iraq, Terror War" [AP, 13 Nov 2002].

Sometimes, this compaction can be taken a bit too far. An elided verb can result in ambiguity. Or a proper name, unrecognized by the reader and disguised by the conventional use of Title Case, may be confused with a common noun.

This page is dedicated to documenting the amusing results. Over the last few years, I've kept a list of newspaper headlines I've seen that make me laugh. Some are arguably ambiguous for reasons described above; some led me "down the garden path" and then produced a pleasant moment of discontinuity as a later word reshuffled the meaning of earlier ones; some are simple errors that shouldn't have made it into print; and some just struck me funny. Most are best read slowly, for maximum puzzlement as more words pile on. Enjoy.


(newest additions are at the end)

Welfare Reform Sparks Rush For U.S. Citizenship

(can we grant full rights to mere sparks, regardless of their political priorities?)

Jack & Jill Recalls [some toy] After Growing Safety Concerns

(Jack & Jill Recall [some toy] Fondly)

As Software Innovation Slows, Bloatware Crowds Store Shelves

(mobs of Microsoft groupies stockpiling melanine boards?)

Heroin Spread Seen As Treatments
Pass Those For Cocaine

(awkward line break -- read the first line and thought it was about treating, say, arthritis by smearing the skin with a narcotic paste)

Update About Steps dialog's Credits tabs' text.

(not from a headline -- from a programmer's to-do item -- but I thought it was hilarious)

Black Cop Mistaken As Suspect Shot

("oops," says the black cop, gun smoking, "my mistake")

Delta Flys After Ford With Employee Computer Program

(are Delta Flys like Medflies? attacking by throwing copies of Microsoft Word?)

(it took some bravery to use 'computer program' to describe something other than software)

(and what -- 'Flys'??)

Mourning's Misses Hurt Heat [NYT 14 May 2000]

(WTF??)

[The Miami Heat is a sports team; Mourning is the last name of a player]

China Trade Issue Hamstrings Gore [NYTimes, 18 February 2000]

(five nouns in a row -- a poem in itself)

(just think if China Trade were a sports team, and there were a comma between Hamstrings and Gore)

Corn Prices Fall on Rain, Oil Drops [NY Times, 28 March 2000]

(the pitter-patter of little prices, tinkling down onto a mixture of petroleum and water)

Grains, Soybeans Mixed After Rain [NY Times 17 April 2000]

(did the water dissolve the partitions between two feed bins?)

Corps Changes Face Objections [NYTimes 6 April 2000]

(the Marines reverse their policy of refusing to admit people with nice faces)

Japan Police Storm Hijacked Bus, Youth Confesses [NY Times, 3 May 2000]

("all right, I'll admit it -- this cop-tornado climbed on, and said 'take me to Cuba or I'll send ya all to Oz!'")

Sydney Thieves Steal Deadly Spiders, Spark Scare [CNN.com, 16 May 2000]

(no! don't steal our spark scare too!)

Sri Lankan police question blast suspects [CNN.com, 8 June 2000]

(too many nouns...)

Producer price news a salve [Upside Today: The Tech Insider, 9 June 2000]

(particularly puzzling if you've been programming lately -- "new" is a verb in C++)

Mexico's Battered Left Mulls Outreach to Right

(the left hand doesn't know why the right keeps bashing it with a hammer)

Putin Says He Will Pardon Pope [CNN.com, 9 December 2000]

(The Pope: "If there's anyone doing any pardoning around here, it'll be me")

[the convicted spy's last name was Pope]

Children's' Products Eyed [USA Today, ~15-19 January 2001]

(yes, sic, with two apostrophes - proofread much?)

Gunman Shot Outside White House Bush Safe [Reuters, 7 February, 2001]

(he'd have been even safer if he'd been inside the bush?)

(oh, I get it -- he was trying to get into the safe where they keep the rare bushes)

(good to know that gunman's safe though)

Stardust Powers On; More Matter Collected [22 February 2001]

("wonder-dust powers, Activate!")

[Stardust is the name of a NASA probe vehicle]

Navy Said to Probe Fourth Officer in Sub Crash [Reuters, 24 February 2001]

(heh heh... they said 'probe')

Jury Jingles Fox for $19 million in Santa Suit [Variety, 7 March 2001]

(all twelve of them, ringing the fox like a Salvation Army bell while fitting into a single Santa suit??)

Scientists Say Men, Women Not Alike

(I'll be damned. Your Tax Dollars At Work)

("But More Data May Be Required... <giggle>")

Scientist Burns Penis With Hot Laptop [Reuters, 23 November 2002]

("The man at the pawn shop said I could use it to burn CDs; I figured, why not body modification too?")

Source: Virgin Picks Sprint for U.S. Move

(But Still Feels Slow Jog More Effective When Seducing Europeans)

Cable Firms Eye Businesses [eWeek, 20 August 2001]

(nouns! nouns!)

(eye businesses = LASIK facilities?)

Continental Axes Web Travel Commissions [cNET, 25 October 2001]

(GIVE ME SOMETHING THAT'S NOT A NOUN!)

(those are some big honkin' wood-splitters)

Report Blames Maintenance on Air Crash [AP, 10 December 2002]

("When that plane went down, I guess we all kinda lost our heads. Next thing we knew, we'd changed its oil, put air in the surviving tires, and replaced the in-flight magazines that were either scorched or had the crosswords filled in. It'll never happen again -- if we can avoid these crashes.")

(not so much ambiguous as just plain WRONG. if X causes Y, you blame X for Y and you blame Y on X.)

(but even if they'd used "Report Blames Maintenance for Air Crash," it would still be troublesome: "This plane was flying fine until we lubricated its jackscrew according to recommended procedures -- then it took an immediate nose dive." apparently "Report Blames Poor Maintenance for Air Crash" was just unacceptably long.)

Astronauts Take Spacewalk, Free Hatch [AP, 15 January 2003]

(presumably as part of a promotional program by a rival space station supplier? collect five hatches and get 20% off on your next control module?)

Bush Fires in Australian Capital
Kill 2 [The Guardian, 19 January 2003]

("Shouldn't that be "kills"? Yes, it's not about our President, but still..." -- Frank Adelstein)

FBI Documents Espionage Suspect's Debt [AP, 31 January 2003]

(if you get started with "FBI Documents" as a noun phrase, you're done for...)

NASA Plans for Shuttle's Return by Fall [AP, 15 March 2003]

(I thought "returning by fall" was kind of a bad thing for spacecraft... perhaps a controlled glide of some sort would be less likely to result in an explosion?)

Man Accused of Killing Dad, Nun Arrested [AP, 27 March 2003]

(why arrest the nun if the man did it?)

Wildlife Boss Jailed for Duping Animal Lovers [AP, 3 April 2003]

(so it wasn't so much that the zookeeper was having sex with meerkats, but more that he was cheating on them?)

Experts Find Biological Clock in Pants [2 April 2003]

(well, that's how I read it anyway -- "Aha! I knew I'd put that clock somewhere handy!" -- but after I did a double-take, it turned out it said 'Plants')

Amazon Says to Open More Stores, Has Mulled Music [Reuters, 28 May 2003]

(i like stores that offer free spiced beverages to their patrons, but perhaps mulled wine or mulled cider would be a more appropriate choice)

U.N. Envoy to Push Myanmar Junta Head on Suu Kyi [Reuters, 8 June 2003]

(sounds like someone found out his "world politics" doll series had interchangeable parts)

Congo Rebels Execute, Kidnap in Dark of Night [Reuters, 13 June 2003]

("Now, I'm no expert, but I'd think you'd have a better chance of getting ransom money if you did it in the opposite order." - Frank Adelstein)

FDA Mulls Silicone-Gel Breast Implants [AP, 14 October 2003]

(But Wonders If Tummy Tuck Should Be First Priority)

S. Korea: North Using Plants As Leverage [AP, 7 November 2003 - by Jae-Suk Yoo]

(you'll find that really large plants work best - try trees, e.g.)

Many Arabs Skeptical of Bush's Speech [AP, 7 November 2003]

("He can't possibly have made it through Yale with a vocabulary that small", they say)

Israeli Intelligence Possibly Flawed [The Ithaca [NY] Journal, 5 December 2003] [thanks to Rebecca Y.]

(U.S. researcher: "For instance, they think you play football with a round ball")

Many Urban Students Score Below Average [AP, 17 December 2003]

("In fact, lessee... Yeah, it's nearly half of them! Let's worry!")

Judge: Orcas Aren't Endangered Species [AP, 18 December 2003]

(OK, this one was not so much ambiguous as just plain wrong. The point of the story was that an federal agency had said the orcas weren't endangered; the judge then said they were. Granted, there was a double-negative involved, but the headline was simply 100% wrong. And that has to count for something.)

Iranian Cabinet Ministers, Others Resign [AP, 21 January 2004]

(but at least that cabinet is still in there, ministering)

Rights Groups Fault UN Steps on Children in Wars [Reuters, 21 January 2004]

(the UN wasn't looking where it was going - and blames those rights groups)

Grant drive seniors' clean car dream [The Ithaca Journal, 21 January 2004]

(what?)

Terror checks chilling foreign enrollment [The Ithaca Journal, 21 January 2004]

(the number of students from abroad was rising to frightening levels, but Terror saved the day)

Bank Robber Breaks Back
in to Return Cash [Reuters, 8 June 2004]

(hard not to read "Breaks Back" as one phrase, especially with that line break and 'in' not capitalized)

Google Leads Web Search But Challenges Loom -S&P [Reuters, 7 June 2004]

(everyone knows Google. but who's this "Loom" company they're now challenging?)

Tattoo artist Eric Vargason from Year of the Dragon Tattoos and Piercing of Auburn reworks a tattoo of the sun and flames along the arm of Rally in the Thunder Valley organizer Robert Macri of Hector at the Finger Lakes Bikes 'n Blues event Sunday afternoon on Conger Boulevard in Groton. [The Ithaca Journal, 12 July 2004]

[this is a caption, not a headline, but I thought it was a remarkably dizzying flood of proper nouns and prepositions]

Danger Signs Up Sharp to Make New Mobile Devices [Reuters, 23 July 2004]

[to understand this, you have to forget that "danger signs" and "up sharp[ly]" are common phrases, and remember that both Danger, Inc. and Sharp Corp. are electronics manufacturers]

Front-runner is leading in presidential race [International Herald Tribune, 6 July 2004]

(and this is news?)

Kerry Hits Boston, Edwards in Spotlight [Reuters, 28 July 2004]

(if you're going to assault your own running mate AND a classic rock band, better to do it someplace less brightly-lit)

Russia Probes Cause of Two Plane Crashes [AP, 25 August 2004]

(they were turning Cold War-era heat-seeking missiles into atmospheric instruments, but forgot to disable the guidance systems?)

[This one illustrates the ambiguity that has arisen from the convention of using a country name as an adjective in headlines, like "Japan Police" where "Japanese Police" is meant, or "Congo Rebels" for "Congolese Rebels." That's not what was intended here, but the first two words might start you out that way.]

Kissinger Comments Seen As OK for Abuse [Yahoo! News, 1 September 2004]

(but it's still prohibited to criticize remarks made by George Bush)

Oneidas have floor in new museum [The Ithaca Journal, 20 September 2004]

("It's a big improvement over our last museum that opened immediately into a bottomless abyss. We had a nearly 100% depreciation rate on our exhibits within five minutes, and very few repeat visitors")

Monster Says It Could Enter Japan by Mid-2005 [Reuters, 11 October 2004]

(pending ongoing turf negotiations with Godzilla and Mothra)

[you know, Monster.com the online job-hunting service]

Child heart surgeon Drummond-Webb commits suicide [Xinhua, 27 December 2004]

("Must've been too much pressure, going through all those medical exams and such at such a young age..." - Frank Adelstein)

Drinking Water Aboard Airliners Worsens [AP, 20 January 2005]

(... worsens what?)

[read like "Eating Pretzels Aboard Airliners Improves..."]

No Slap on the Wrist for Slap on the Bottom [Reuters, 20 January 2005]

[This one's more interesting than funny. I expected it meant that someone slapped someone else and didn't get punished. But the article actually stresses the severity of the punishment. This is the ambiguity of the negative - "he did not receive a specified light punishment" might mean "he received no punishment at all" or "he received a heavier punishment than expected." Even more ironic, though the article stresses the unprecedented severity of the sentence, and quotes the offender as saying "This sentence has ruined my life," the sentence (14 months in jail) was suspended. So apparently, after all that, he did just get a slap on the wrist!]

Palestinians Eye Wider Gaza Deployment to Seal Truce [Reuters, 25 January 2005]

("There are just too many nouns. I'm guessing it's related to big-eyed Palestinians making peace with fur seals, though it could be Navy SEALs." - Frank Adelstein)

FBI Unable to Launch New Computer Program - Audit [Reuters, 3 February 2005]

("We keep double-clicking the icon, but we just get some kind of error box talking about a missing DLL or something. If anyone knows what's going on, please call 1-800-SPYONUS.")

Microsoft's Gates Vows 'Interoperable' Software [Reuters, 5 February 2005]

(they're almost there already - just missing the 'ter')

Philippine police assaults suspects launching prison riot [Xinhua, 15 March 2005]

["I find there are just too many verbs in that sentence to parse..." - Frank Adelstein]

Scientists Artificially Inseminate Whale [AP, 1 April 2005]

[I just find the phrase "artificially inseminate" funny. Partly because it involves semen, but also because it's become a catch-phrase - the more natural word order would be "Scientists Inseminate Whale Artificially." And then, you have to think: Isn't 'artificially' redundant here? Did they really think if they left it out people would get the wrong impression? (And if they did, wouldn't that help attract readers?)]

Take That! Lowly Slug Escape Lobsters Grasp [LiveScience.com, 1 April 2005]

[Mainly problematic because of the grammatical errors: should be "Slugs" or "Escapes," and should be "Lobsters'". Perhaps the 's' fell off and into the first sentence of the article, where it doesn't belong: "The lowly sea slugs put up a good defense when attacked by a lobster - and many times it wins."]


and now for

The All-Time Top Five

Man Missing After Scaffold Collapse Throws Workers Into Detroit River [CNN.com, 15 November 2000]

("he'd been missing for two days; then, we find him tossing his fellow employees into the water")

Israeli Troops Shoot Dead Palestinian Militant [Reuters, 11 December 2002]

(sounds like a waste of ammunition -- but maybe they just like to be sure)

Budget Requests To Be Debated [The Ithaca [NY] Journal, 26 October 2001]

(what a polite budget)

Catholic Bishops Choose Black Head [AP, 14 November 2001]

(each year, one sacrificial pimple is selected...)


and, my all-time favorite:
...

drum roll, please:
...

Man Executed in Texas, Oklahoma [AP]

(shot him first, then dragged him over the border and stabbed him -- he was one bad hombre and they had to be sure)

[I assume Texas is a town in Oklahoma -- but "Man Executed in Texas, OK" would have been even worse -- sounds like he survived...] [So why'd they specify the town name at all?]

[or did they mean there was one execution in each state? shouldn't that be "Men" even in the arid grammar of headlines? or is the lone comma supposed to duplicate all of "Man Executed In"?]

[and why didn't I read the story and find out?!]


That's all I have for now. If you come across any headlines that should be added to this list, please drop me a note with the exact text and reference.

Last revised: Saturday, April 02, 2005

Back to TJW's home