I wrote for Grammar Girl recently about crash blossoms:
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).
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.
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Crash blossoms are a particular type of ambiguity, generally structural but sometimes lexical, made possible by the reduced frequency of function words in headlines which makes it harder to disambiguate multiple possible interpretations.
They’re also an interesting example of a usage issue where even the most hardcore descriptivist can still reasonably recommend that people try to avoid them. While crash blossoms can be entertaining and accidentally writing one definitely doesn’t make someone a bad person, they do cause readers to be genuinely confused, which is generally not what writers are aiming for.