"House Murders Accused Mother in Court"

If only you could use parentheses in English the way you can in math or computer programming.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Mark Liberman (Language Log) spots this odd headline at the BBC News.

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  1. As the BBC is not space-limited by the technology of paper publishing in any edition, it has no excuse for this sort of headline idiocy. It’s barely longer and far clearer to say:

    Sheffield deaths: Mother accused in ‘house murders’ in court.

    1. Great re-write. By my count yours is 38 spaces; 36 in the original. BBC headline writer needs a talking-to.

      1. He should be encouraged to read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” as a quarterly ritual.

    2. You assume that the ambiguity is unintentional. I assume clickbait.

    3. Still problematic. A house is an inanimate object. It’s not alive, therefore, it can’t be murdered.

  2. Here’s somethingbernard11 can sink his statist teeth into!

  3. House Murders Accused Mother in Court

    There is a film franchise based on a villainous house.

    But I think the meaning is Mother Accused [of] House Murders [appeared] in Court.

    That’s the problem with reading foreign news sources: different languages do have different word orders.

    1. One the one hand, the headline does keep it short and simple (sort of KISS principle as applied to writing) but the headline does murder clarity.

    2. I wasn’t aware that what they speak in Sheffield (UK) counted as a different language.

      1. Cliche: America and Britain, divided by a “common” language.
        To Anglophiles, American English is a different dialect.

        In the classic Haynes auto manuals discussing parts cleaning, “paraffin” is British English for what is called “kerosene” in American English. Most American English users equate paraffin to the wax used in canning.

        1. In a sense, true. But I’m not aware of any significant deviations in the rules for word orders – which was your original point.

  4. A simple hyphen? As in “House-Murders Accused Mother in Court”.

    1. Better, but still confusing. I think “House-murders” (with or without the hyphen) in quotes is key. That alerts the reader to how these ordinary words have special meaning when used together in this context.

  5. Naomi Wolf has found the topic for her next book!

  6. As an erstwhile headline writer, I say drum that editor out of the guild! Yikes.

  7. “Pardon My Blooper” can never die.

  8. If a house were tried for murder, would it be represented by Attic-us Finch?

    1. “Objection! No foundation!”

      1. Damn…that’s funnier than mine. 🙁

  9. These were represented to me as actual headlines:

    “Defendant’s speech ends with long sentence”

    “Woman off to prison for sex with boys”

    1. And “Defendant receives cruel punishment: Lawyer”

    2. Another delightful one I ran across not long ago was “Felon Hunting Rights in the State of Oregon?”

      1. “France Wants Iraq to Control Its Security” is another.

    3. There have long been whole collections of these ambiguous headlines.

      One that seems to be real (and I suspect the editors of a small town newspaper had been waiting for the chance to print it):
      “Manly Man Marries Fertile Woman,”
      referring to a wedding between residents of Manly, Iowa and Fertile, Iowa.

  10. “House Murders Accused Mother in Court”

    I missed that episode. What season was it?

    1. I dunno. I missed it. I am glad that my late wife (a fan of Gregory House) missed it too.

    2. Are you sure House murdered her? Maybe she died of lupus.

      1. It would have to be the final episode (and not just for the current season) if he murdered her in court.

  11. I took a screenshot (can’t add to this comment, but I double checked it) of a link for a related story with the title “Entebbe pilot ‘saw hostage murdered'” with a photo of a grinning older man next to (& part of) the link…not the best photo for that story link.

    “China may be using sea to hide its submarines” was written by Captain Obvious. https://twitter.com/GerardAraud/status/637730414732427264?s=19

    1. … “Entebbe pilot ‘saw hostage murdered’” with a photo of a grinning older man …

      Ever realize that often in click-bait news, the image of a politician or celebrity is not them in the actual event but a stock photo of them reacting to something else entirely?

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