“Syntactically ambiguous” news headlines

A syntactically ambiguous headline:

Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

syntax: the way words are put together in a language to form phrases, clauses, or sentences. “Syntactically” is the adverb form of syntax.
SIL International

ambiguous: open to or having several possible interpretations

The phrase “syntactically ambiguous” means that a sentence or expression is ambiguous because of its syntax. Change the order of the words, and the ambiguity is resolved.


Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Axe” could mean one of two things:

  1. An enraged cow used an axe to attack a farmer.
  2. An enraged cow attacked a farmer who was holding an axe.

Unless the axe is critical to the story, I would fix this headline by striking the last two words:

Enraged Cow Injures Farmer

EXERCISE: Syntactically ambiguous headlines

Created by Bucknell University’s Department of Linguistics, Culture, and Languages.