Fun with Crash Blossoms

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." 

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read

In normal prose, we're less likely to encounter crash blossoms because we have lots of function words, like to and the, that help us distinguish between to crash and the crash. In a headline, on the other hand, where these short words are often omitted, it's easy to end up with something that has multiple possible interpretations, and it's hard to notice in your own writing because you already know which of these interpretations you're intending. 

Spoken Language Can Be More Clear Than Written Language

Interestingly, if you're learning about crash blossoms and garden path sentences by listening to the podcast version of this article, you may notice that it's easier to get the intended meaning from spoken language than if you're reading it in text. That's because spoken language also comes with intonational cues about which words belong with which other words. For example, I might pause slightly between crash and lands if I'm talking about something to do with a crash that is landing, whereas I'd run crash and lands together if I'm talking about the entire event of crash-landing. We can approximate some of these cues with punctuation, such as a hyphen or a comma, but ultimately written language is just somewhat less precise when it comes to exactly how you'd pronounce something. 

Oh, and by the way, if you're confused about what the original crash-blossom headline "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms" could possibly mean, John McIntyre explains that it refers to "a young violinist whose career has prospered since the death of her father in a Japan Airlines crash in 1985." Smashing. 

That article [article] was written by Gretchen McCulloch who blogs at All Things Linguistic. Check out her site for other great posts.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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