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What is an Ambiguous Headline?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Newspaper headlines are designed to grab a reader's attention by succinctly stating the main thrust of an article. "Oil Prices Fall Again" or "Sheriff Busts Major Drug Ring" would be examples of straightforward headlines which set the reader up for the details to follow. Unfortunately, some newspaper copy editors working on strict deadlines or other pressure situations can create an ambiguous headline, a confusing or misleading headline with often humorous connotations.

Sometimes an ambiguous headline sounds perfectly reasonable in conversation but falls flat on the page. One newspaper reported a failed agricultural bill with the unclear headline "Farmer Bill Dies in House". The unfortunate similarity between a real farmer named Bill expiring in a real house and the failure of the legislative bill in the state house created an ambiguity. Other real headlines of this type include "Reagan Wins On Budget, But More Lies Ahead" and "Queen Mary Having Bottom Scraped".

Other instances of an ambiguous headline can be caused by poorly chosen nouns and verbs, especially those with multiple meanings. One such headline, ostensibly promoting the use of small toy chairs for easier gardening, read "Children's Stool Great for Use in Garden." When liberal members of the British parliament changed their positions on the Falkland Islands conflict, one headline read "British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands."

Misplaced modifiers can also lead to an ambiguous headline, often with unintentionally humorous results. When two estranged sisters encountered each other in a grocery store line after an 18 year separation, the headline read "2 sisters reunited after 18 years in checkout counter." A case of apparent bovine revenge came out in a headline as "Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax." A man convicted of stealing a violin while intoxicated apparently received poetic justice: "Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case".

Sometimes a misspelled or poorly chosen word leads to an ambiguous headline. A crackdown on jaywalking yielded the headline "Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers." A new restriction on winter tires prompted the headline "Stud Tires Out." In a situation where the word colleagues may have been a more inspired choice, one ambiguous headline read "Columnist Gets Urologist in Trouble with His Peers".

There are numerous other examples of unclear headlines available online and in the humor sections of bookstores and libraries. Late night comedians such as Jay Leno routinely present collections of ambiguous headlines submitted by viewers. Considering how little time a copy editor may have to create interesting headlines, it is somewhat surprising there aren't even more examples floating around in cyberspace.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By stoneMason — On Aug 03, 2012

@fify-- No, I think most of these headlines really are ambiguous. I just saw one online that says "Chick accuses colleagues of sexism." This headline is a great example because it sounds like a random girl is accusing her colleagues of sexism. But "Chick" is actually the woman's last name. The writer should have put her full name instead of just her last name.

@SarahGen-- I don't like ambiguous headlines because just as you said, sometimes that's all people read. If the headline is confusing, people might reach wrong conclusions about the subject.

By fify — On Aug 02, 2012

Do you guys think that the headlines mentioned in the article are really ambiguous or just the words in them carry double meaning?

I think it's more of the latter. It might take a second for us to figure it out, but it's not hard. I know that stool has two meanings, but when I read that headline, I realized right away that it was talking about a seat and not the result of a bowel movement.

Of course, that's no excuse. Writers should still be more careful and re-word headlines that carry double meaning.

By SarahGen — On Aug 02, 2012
I like ambiguous headlines. Not just for the humor factor, but also because I think some ambiguity causes curiosity and gets more readers to read the article.

I read a newspaper every morning and I've noticed that when I see an ambiguous headline, I definitely read that article. The confusion caused by the headline makes me want to find out what the article is really about. Whereas if the headline is very clear and straightforward, I might skip reading the article altogether.

I know most ambiguous headlines aren't meant to be so. But it might not be such a bad idea to make headlines slightly ambiguous intentionally to arouse interest in the reader.

By cloudel — On Aug 01, 2012

If an ambiguous headline is bad enough, it can get you fired. I knew a reporter in my hometown who got fired for his headline because it sounded really racist, but that was by no means his intention.

I guess it all depends on the personality of your boss, too. Many bosses would be understanding, because in order to go to print, a headline would have to be viewed by several sets of eyes, so the blame could not be placed just on one person. If the headline could pass the test of several people, then I can't see how the boss could justify firing the writer for it.

By healthy4life — On Aug 01, 2012

@Izzy78 – I designed ads for a newspaper for many years, and about half of those were little classified display ads. I didn't handle the ones that were composed of just sentences, but I did handle the ones that got put into frames and were a little bigger to stand out, and I can tell you that we did see a lot of strangely worded ads.

The clients always told us exactly how they wanted their ads to read, and if it sounded really bad, sometimes we would tell them that they might want to reword it or ask them if they were sure. Generally, they would change it up to sound better, but there were several times when ad content got emailed to us and we could not get in contact with the person before time for the ad to run, so we just had to let the ambiguous sentences and bold headlines within the ad run as they were.

It is humorous to readers when they see ambiguous headlines in actual ads, but we have had advertisers call us up angry before because we didn't change the wording. In that case, we have documented proof in the form of an email that this was what we were told to run, so they haven't got a leg to stand on.

By shell4life — On Jul 31, 2012

The one about the urologist and his peers is priceless! Ambiguous headlines crack me up more than most other types of humor.

Just the fact that they were so unintentional makes them hilarious. I think that the ones constructed by fake sites on purpose are amusing but not nearly as funny as the ones that happen by accident.

Though I can't really recall any of the hundreds that I have read in my lifetime, at the moment I read them, they were the funniest things I had ever heard. It's strange how quickly we forget things that made us laugh so hard. I guess that is to the advantage of the poor writers, though!

By Izzy78 — On Jul 30, 2012

@TreeMan - The one about Queen Mary is referring to the Queen Mary boat having its bottom scraped of barnacles. I had to think about it for a second, too.

I'm sure a lot of people have seen it, but Jay Leno also does a little segment called Headlines where he shows ambiguous headlines articles from various newspapers around the US. I guess it's not an honor by any means, but I know there have been a couple of headlines from papers in my area that have it onto the show. I don't recall what they were off the top of my head, though.

Although they aren't exactly headlines, looking through the classifieds section of a newspaper is also a good place to find ambiguous writing. Obviously, the people writing classifieds don't have to go through any sort of editing process, so it's easy for people to make mistakes that end up with funny ads. I'm sure in other cases that typos from the paper can lead to funny lines.

By Kristee — On Jul 30, 2012

@stl156 – I agree with you. It is really embarrassing for the writer and the editor when an ambiguous headline goes unnoticed by both and gets printed.

I worked at a newspaper for many years in the advertising department, and there were a couple of times that this happened to reporters there. One time, some of my coworkers posted the printed ambiguous headline on social media sites for everyone to see, and this really angered the writer.

I think it is best to giggle to yourself or amongst one or two friends when something like this happens. By all means, don't point it out to the writer. Doing that is the responsibility of the editor.

By TreeMan — On Jul 29, 2012

@JimmyT - I was also thinking about The Onion while I was reading this. If you have never heard about the brainstorming sessions that have to come up with their articles, you should check it out. I believe "This American Life" did an episode on it.

As far as real newspaper headlines go, I think my favorite might be "Prostitutes Appeal to Pope." I remember seeing that one several years ago on a website that had a collection of funny headlines. For some reason, it has just stuck in my head. The one I don't really understand is the one about Queen Mary. How could that article mean anything except someone have their bottom scraped?

By JimmyT — On Jul 29, 2012

@stl156 - I agree. The sheer number of ambiguous headlines out there makes you wonder how many good ones actually were caught before hitting the presses.

One example where I can think of ambiguous headlines being a good thing is for articles that are either supposed to be funny or as a pun on something else. The example that comes to my mind is the fake newspaper "The Onion." The headlines from those articles are usually ambiguous but are usually meant to be read as having the "less appropriate" meaning.

I think writing an ambiguous headline like that could be even more difficult than a normal headline. First, you have to actually come up with a headline that could be interpreted both ways and then find some way to write a funny story about it.

By stl156 — On Jul 28, 2012

Ha. Some of those are really good. I think you kind of have to feel sorry for the writer that came up with the headline, though. I doubt many people actually get fired for making an ambiguous headline, but I am sure it is hard to live down the embarrassment at the office.

Like the article mentions, though, you have to make sure the editor takes some of the criticism for letting these headlines through. I have been in a lot of situations where I wrote a sentence that could have been interpreted two different ways and didn't think anything about it until it was brought to my attention. For example, with the "children's stool" headline, I'm sure small chairs were the only thing going through that person's mind at the time, and they never thought about the other possible interpretations.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick


As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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