Gretchen McCulloch from All Thing Linguistic explains why so many people were confused last week by an Associated Press headline that read "Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven."
Last week, the Associated Press had a rather alarming headline. It read "Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven." With the amount of tension that had been in the air around the two recent Malaysia Airlines crashes, it's no surprise that many people interpreted this headline as meaning that the Dutch plane had crash-landed (a third crash), rather than the meaning that the AP intended, that the Dutch plane carrying bodies from the crash had landed (only two crashes).
BREAKING: Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven. — The Associated Press (@AP) July 23, 2014
The Original Crash Blossom
Although the ambiguous headline was quickly corrected, it remains interesting linguistically as an example of a phenomenon known as a crash blossom: a headline whose words are easily mis-parsed, often to humorous effect.
The name "crash blossom" is from an unfortunate headline similar in spirit to the Malaysia example: A user named Bessie3 posted to a forum called Testy Copy Editors the confusing headline "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms" in August 2009, and subsequent commenters decided that "crash blossoms" would be an appropriate name for similar examples.
Lists of Crash Blossoms
The vividness and usefulness of crash blossoms meant that it quickly spread beyond the original forum post, to a blog post by linguist and writer John McIntyre and onto Language Log and elsewhere, aided by the fact that lists of crash blossoms are often highly entertaining to read. For example, even before the term crash blossom was coined, there were two compilations of such headlines from the Columbia Journalism Review, respectively titled Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim and Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge. More recently, there's also an entire website, crashblossoms.com, that collects user-submitted examples of crash blossoms from the headlines.
Garden Path Sentences
Crash blossoms aren't the only kind of confusing sentence structure. Other famous examples in psycholinguistics are known as garden path sentences, such as "the horse raced past the barn fell" or "the old man the boat." When you first try to understand these sentences, they'll lead you down a garden path of thinking they're about about a horse who raced or an old man, but when you get to the end, you realize that you have to re-interpret them as about a horse who was raced past the barn and the old who man the boat.
Psycholinguists create garden path sentences deliberately, because people's confusion at reading them tells us that we start trying to find meaning in a sentence as soon as we're exposed to any part of it, rather than waiting until the end. But if you're aiming for ease of comprehension rather than experimenting on your readers, you probably want to re-read your writing later or have someone proofread it to avoid crash blossoms, garden paths, and other kinds of misplaced modifiers.
Why English Headlines Are Especially Susceptible to Crash Blossoming
English is particularly prone to crash blossoms and garden path sentences because so many of our words can belong to multiple parts of speech without any visible change: for example, crash can be a noun, as in I heard a loud crash, a verb, as in I don't want to crash the car, or a modifier, as in crash victim. In many other languages, nouns and verbs always have some sort of visible and audible difference between them, just like crashed must be a verb and not a noun.