Newspaper headlines often distort the story they are meant to help tell

This is the Grammar Guy column, a new weekly feature written by Curtis Honeycutt.

Did you attend the Crash Blossoms reunion tour this summer? If you missed it, it’s because the Crash Blossoms aren’t a real band. They sound like a one-hit band from the mid to late 90s, whose number one song was called something like “Hey Monica” or “We Met in the Chat Room”.

In fact, a crash flower is something I find equally amusing, although I would definitely have rolled down the windows and turned on the radio for “Hey Monica.” A crash flower is a news headline whose unclear wording can lead to confusing meanings. The term regained its name in 2009 when an American publisher in Japan came across a headline that read “Violinist linked to JAL Crash Blossoms”. The editor, after reading the title, wondered what a “crash flower” was. In fact, it had to do with the violinist – whose father died in a plane crash in 1985 – furthering her musical career. The title was misleading.

Let’s look at some examples. A 2012 New York Times opinion column featured a headline that read “Israel ducks on human rights.” It wasn’t about ducks of Israel and their thoughts on human rights (as opposed to duck rights). In fact, the essay lamented that the Israeli government has shown a tendency to avoid getting involved in cases where foreign governments allegedly committed human rights abuses.

More from the grammar guy ::The Horrors of “Taboo” Language

A 2012 BBC report baffled many when it led with the headline “Girl found alive in France kills car”. To help you understand what really happened here, let’s look at a CNN headline on the same story: “France Shooting: Girl Hid Under Dead Bodies in Car.” What happened here is that a woman was found alive among the bodies inside a car linked to a series of murders in France.

Curtis Honeycutt

The ambiguous headlines make me laugh out loud, but what would you expect from a former English student? “The police can’t stop playing.” “A blind bishop appointed to see. “Kids make nutritious snacks.” “Milk drinkers turn to powder.” “Children’s stool ideal for use in the garden.” “Squad helps dog bite victim.” You can’t make this stuff up, and I can’t wait to see how my editor changes the title I originally wrote for this column.

More from the grammar guy:How to successfully feign the wisdom of words

With limited column widths and space on a physical page, copy editors are forced to truncate article titles. Of course, this assumes that publishers are still planning titles and word count limits based on a physical journal, which for the most part is still the case. This is why we are perplexed when we read a headline that says “Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts”. I recommend reading beyond the titles so you get the full story.

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