language corner

Duty Double

When nouns and verbs collide
January 10, 2011

Headlines are supposed to grab a reader’s attention and provide a fast synopsis of an article for a busy reader. So what’s a reader to think happened when she reads this?

“U.S. rules on tax adopted by state”

Or this?

Council hires ban bid taxi firm

It’s not instantly clear what either headline is saying, because each includes more than one word that could be either nouns or verbs. Does the first one say that the U.S. rules on a tax that was adopted by the state, making “rules” the main verb, or that rules set by the U.S. were adopted by the state, making “adopted” the main verb?

The second example is even worse, because three words— hires, ban, and bid —could be nouns or verbs. Did the council “hire” someone, who did something with a taxi firm, or did people already hired by the council “ban” something to do with a taxi firm, or did people hired by the council … well, backward reels the mind.

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Ambiguous headlines that force a reader to back up and read several times have several names, the most colorful of which is “crash blossoms.” (Many show up in CJR’s “Lower Case,” and there’s even a website dedicated to them.) The term traces to a discussion on the Testy Copy Editors forum, run by Phil Blanchard, and is credited to the appropriately named Dan Bloom.

Crash blossoms show up mainly in headlines because, in print at least, headlines are written to constrained space and call for many shortcuts. Forms of “to be” are often dropped; if the first headline had read “U.S. rules on tax are adopted by state,” far fewer readers’ heads would have been scratched. Adjectives are often piled up to save space: That “Council hires” headline shows up online as “Council awards more work to controversial taxi firm,” so “hires” was the verb and “ban” and “bid” were shorthand adjectives for “banned from bidding.” Of course, the “crash blossom” is thirty-one characters and the online headline is fifty-one, so it may have been a space issue. But what about “Council hires a banned taxi firm”? That’s thirty-two characters. Or “Banned taxi firm gets more work” is thirty-one on the nose.

Headlines are often written in haste, as the last piece of a story, and online headline writers are often have to include a lot of search engine optimization terms, so “headlinese” is all but unavoidable. But if every headline writer would read each headline aloud, fewer crashes like these may blossom:

“Tea party vow to police vote fraud called scare tactic.”

Quick! What was that story about?

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.