Raymond misreads newspaper headlines, episode 3

The headline: First lady to speak at Ala. school hit by tornado.

My interpretation: There's a woman who was the first woman to speak at an Alabama school. This is notable presumably because she had to break some historical gender barrier in order to be invited to give an address there. That woman was hit by a tornado.

My reaction: Man, what horrible luck, for a person to be hit by a tornado. I hope she's okay.

What the headline actually meant: A school in Alabama was hit by a tornado. The First Lady will visit that school.

Comments (28)
  1. Will says:

    My first take was that Eve was set to speak at a school.  Then I remembered that she was a sneak and a liar and, arguably, a hoochy for messing around with that snake so it’s questionable whether one could call her a lady.  Then I remembered she’s been dead for quite some time so she’s speaking nowhere.

  2. mvadu says:

    its Pathetic Ray..

    By reading "First Lady" 99.99% of Americans thinks about "The First Lady".

  3. siebe tolsma says:

    mvadu: Maybe. But note that the title says "First lady", not "First Lady". Something about a horse, uncle Jack and helping him.

  4. Eric says:

    Is English a great language or what?  I love it!

  5. Adam V says:


    When I read "First Lady" (capital L), of course I think of the President’s wife.

    When I read "First lady" (lowercase L) then I think of it along the lines of "first person", the way Raymond described. So count me in the 0.01 percent.

    Of course, when you wrote it, you capitalized "Lady" too.

  6. CapsLock says:

    "First lady" isn’t capitalized in the linked article.

  7. mvadu says:

    I misread Raymonds blogpost, episode 1

  8. James Schend says:

    The nice thing about Google News is that in the process of showing you multiple news sources, it also shows you multiple headlines for the story. Thus, crappy headlines will be easier to interpret.

  9. George Jansen says:

    As I recall, this is what YACC refers to as a shift/reduce ambiguity.

  10. Cavaler says:

    Bad luck using a language without well-defined operator precedence. Or grouping operators.

  11. there might’ve been other woman who have spoken before, but this was the first lady

  12. CtrlAltDelete says:

    Ok,  how do you interpret:

    First lady eats shoots and leaves

    (FWIW, I read your headline the same way you did)

  13. daves561 says:

    Tangentializing a bit, note that the link to the First Lady’s bio is at http://www.whitehouse.gov/firstlady/flbio.html

    Am I the only one who finds overqualification to cause excruciating mental discomfort? You’re already inside the "firstlady" folder; the default "namespace" is therefore already the First Lady. It should be either firstlady/bio.html or whitehouse.gov/flbio.html.

    I know this has little to do with the original topic, but Raymond has already set a precedent of silliness.

  14. Jonathan says:

    CtrlAltDelete: According to the preface of "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy", Douglas Adams’ hobbies are: Cooking his children and leaving out commas.

  15. Boris says:

    I immediately read that as "a US president’s wife", since I don’t expect a modern-day newspaper to use the word "lady" instead of "woman".

  16. David Walker says:

    George Jansen: YACC… You mean the old "Yet Another Compiler Compiler"?

    Time Flies like an Arrow…

  17. Drake Wilson says:

    Hmm.  The headline seems to actually state “First lady speaks at …” (which may be changed from before), which is somewhat different; that puts it more clearly into the present indicative tense, so it can’t be a modifier to the noun “First lady” at the beginning of the sentence.

    [Somebody must have updated the headline to fix the ambiguity. Some sites still have the old headline, and a few tried to fix it and failed. -Raymond]
  18. Mr Cranky says:

    This is the kind of blog post that makes a grammar nazi feel all warm and fuzzy.

  19. anon says:

    @daves561: I concur. It also annoys me when people do that with code. If you’re already in the foo/ folder, don’t name your classes FooBar.

  20. Tanveer Badar says:

    First, you are twisted. :) Just like me.

    @ mvadu, not everyone reading The Old New Thing is American.

  21. Adriano says:

    Another possible interpretation:

    After a lady speaks for the first time in Ala., the school she spoke in was hit by a tornado.

    I know, the dot is required for the abbreviation of Alabama, but it’s so much funnier this way…

  22. Old Coder says:

    Perhaps, instead of making fun of the headline, reading the content of the article might have cleared up any misunderstandings?

  23. FLOTUS is beautifully unambiguous and takes up less headline space.

    But, ew.

  24. FWIW, dictionary.com says capitalization is optional.


  25. Boris says:

    How about "First lady to speak at devastated Ala. school"?

  26. Igor Levicki says:

    How about "First Lady grabs shovel, helps rebuilding of Alabama school"?

    Nah, that would be wishfull thinking.

  27. How about "First lady to speak at devastated Ala. school"?


    Student A: Hey, did you hear the First Lady is coming to speak at our school?

    Student B: Really?  Oh, man…

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