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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.