The humorous 1980 book titled Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim and Other Flubs from teh Nation's Press (AbeBooks, Goodreads)1 recently came to mind after seeing the headline

Shocking video shows Chinese robot attack dog with machine gun dropped by drone

which I honestly read as the robot attacking the poor dog, and was perplexed because I could not figure out if the robot attacked the dog because it had a machine gun, or that it attacked the dog using a machine gun. Alas, "attack dog" is the object, dropped is the verb and drone is the subject.

I think it's just a coincidence that "dog bite" and "attack dog" are both related to canines.

Question: Is there a term for sentences that are hopelessly and often humorously ambiguous like these and others? Has it been approached algorithmically - is there the possibility of a simple rules-based "ambiguous headline generator"?

1squad, helps, dog bite victim were likely the intended subject verb and object respectively, but it is easy to see it as the squad helping the dog as it endeavors to bite the victim.

  • 2
    Term: clickbait. Fox News has editors who are perfectly qualified to correct any confusables with hyphens and whatnot, should they choose to do so. If they cause you to understand that a Chinese robot is attacking dogs (no matter which party has machine guns)... their work is done. Oct 28, 2022 at 2:25
  • I see "clickbait" as being intentional rather than accidental.
    – Greybeard
    Oct 28, 2022 at 11:20
  • 1
    I think the term is "English".
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 28, 2022 at 14:13
  • The object of "shows" is "Chinese robot attack-dog with machine gun". "Attack-dog is a compound noun, where the hyphen disambiguates the meaning.
    – BillJ
    Oct 29, 2022 at 9:12

3 Answers 3


The term crash blossoms [Merriam-Webster: neologism monitoring panel] has been coined for headlines of this kind. It originates with a headline in which blossoms was intended as a verb (develops successfully), not a noun.


Has it been approached algorithmically - is there the possibility of a simple rules-based "ambiguous headline generator"?

Not as far as I am aware. The database would have to be huge and rather specific. The vast majority of these crash blossoms occur when a word's function (or meaning) is not that contextually expected. As the composition of crash blossoms is thus limited to words that have two functions:

"Girl's body found next to mine." -mine is assumed to be a pronoun but is a noun.

"The old man the boats" -man is assumed to be a noun but is a verb.

"The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families." - complex is assumed to be an adjective but is a noun, and houses is assumed to be a noun but is a verb.

"Nut screws washers and bolts" which could be a list of nouns or it could mean "mentally disturbed person rapes people who are washing and flees."

And classically:

"The man the professor the student has knows studies Rome." (which I will leave for you to decipher.)


Garden-path sentence is a similar term, not necessarily linked to headlines. There is a Wikipedia page which defines one as "a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader's most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end or yields a clearly unintended meaning."

Wikipedia's examples include: "The old man the boat." Here, you think "the old man" is a noun phrase - but no, "man" is a verb meaning to crew/staff, and "the old" is the noun phrase subject. Confusion arises because talking about an "old man" is more common than this use of the verb "man".

The etymology, they explain, is the English phrase "to be led up the garden path", meaning to mislead someone - the source of this idiom isn't entirely clear, but may be related to a winding ornamental path in a garden that goes nowhere in particular, suggested as a possible source by Wiktionary.

As mentioned in other answers, there is no particular algorithm to generate one, but they depend on finding multiple elements which can function in different grammatical ways, as with "old" (noun or adjective) and "man" (verb or noun).

  • 1
    No; garden path sentences are resolvable not 'hopelessly ambiguous'. Oct 28, 2022 at 18:46

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