Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

High-Frying Ambiguity

Posted by Neal on September 23, 2009

Larry Horn sent a message to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list this morning, with the following headline that a colleague had brought to his attention:

McDonald’s fries holy grail for potato farmers

McDonald's fries holy grail

I showed it to Doug, who was home with a fever, and he and I laughed and laughed over McDonald’s having found, and fried, this holiest of artifacts.

Not too long afterward, Ben Zimmer posted a message thanking Larry and noted the headline over at Language Log, where several of the comments have brought out exactly what properties of English, and in particular headline-ese, made this ambiguity possible. If you want, you can read through the (at time of this writing) 20 comments there and get the same information as you’re going to get here, but I’m going to write it up anyway, with all the contributing properties discussed in a single place.

The first property is simply that fry can be either a noun or a verb. The ambiguity disappears if we replace fries with something that is (mostly) unambiguously a noun, or unambiguously a verb:

McDonald’s pies holy grail for apple farmers.
McDonald’s finds holy grail for crusading knights.

The second property is that English morphology is so impoverished that the same suffix, -s, is the third-person present-tense suffix on verbs and the plural marker on regular nouns (and the singular possessive marker, too, but that’s not important here). If instead of fries you use a past-tense verb, or a singular noun, the ambiguity again disappears:

McDonald’s fried holy grail for potato farmers.
McDonald’s Big Mac holy grail for potato farmers.

Third is the fact that the possessive form of proper names is often used as a proper name itself, meaning the establishment owned, founded, or named after the person. If I used a singular common noun instead of the proper noun McDonald, then the possessive form would need a(nother) noun to go with it, and fries would have to be that noun. It couldn’t be a verb anymore, and the ambiguity would once again disappear:

Best friend’s fries holy grail for potato farmers.

And finally, there’s the regular omission of the linking verb be in English headlines, and the regular use of the present tense for events that happened in the past news cycle. Phrased in ordinary English, the two meanings would be expressed differently from each other:

McDonald’s fries are the holy grail for potato farmers.
McDonald’s fried the holy grail for potato farmers.

Wow, that’s not just two McDonald’s-related posts in one month, it’s two McDonald’s-fries related posts in one month, and I don’t even like French fries all that much.

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8 Responses to “High-Frying Ambiguity”

  1. Rachel said

    I think there’s a second ambiguity based on the attachment of ‘for potato farmers’. When I first saw the sentence over at Language Log, I didn’t even see the meaning corresponding to “McDonald’s fries are the holy grail for potato farmers.” I saw these:

    1. McDonald’s fries(verb) [the holy grail] [for potato farmers] – the image shown in the picture above, where the holy grail gets fried.

    2. McDonald’s fries(verb) [the holy grail for potato farmers] – some kind of potato is so desired by potato farmers that it can be referred to as ‘the holy grail for potato farmers’, and McDonalds fries it.

    I admit that when looking at the Language Log article I didn’t read what was under the headline, and actually assumed that 2. was the intended reading.

  2. […] see just how easily the headline might have been steered into good sense, I recommend Literal-Minded’s analysis of the ambiguity (and his literal-minded image of the grail-frying). Happily, I have yet to be […]

  3. I think this is my second comment in a row that references the name of this blog, but I don’t think that the headline was a bad one at all.

    When I first saw it on Language Log, it was accompanied by a screenshot of the article from some website syndicating it. That screenshot showed the headline along with a portion of the article and a photograph associated with the article. As such, the first parsing of the headline was the one intended, with “fries” referring to the noun “french fries”. In fact, the phrase “McDonald’s fries” is a colloquialism meaning just that: McDonald’s french fries. In this example, you really have to go out of your way to parse the headline incorrectly, and I don’t think it’s a true crash blossom.

    I think that sometimes linguists (and I’m not blaming you specifically) just look for things to analyze for the sake of analysis, rather than having an actual purpose (and benefit) for it.

    • The Ridger said

      I dunno. Everybody I know who saw that laughed. I agree that everybody immediately corrected to the real reading, but it’s really easy to see the other one.

      And analyzing one like this – where the unintended reading is so unlikely – helps understand the ones where it’s not.

  4. hsgudnason said

    I’m also bothered by the term “holy grail” in this context. Isn’t a holy grail the essentially unattainable target of a quest? So I could see “No fat healthy meals are McDonald’s holy grail,” or “All-purpose potatoes for frying, baking, mashing, and salads are potato farmers’ holy grail.” But since millions of potatoes are destined to be used for McDonald’s fries, to describe them as the holy grail seems to miss the point.

    The better term would seem to be one that grates on me because of its overuse: gold standard.

    Or did I miss a meaning shift in “holy grail”?

    • Uly said

      No, the point seems to be that only three varieties of potatoes (out of literally thousands, in case you were wondering) are accepted by McDonald’s to be used in their fries. So potato farmers want to produce a new variety that will be accepted. Or maybe potato breeders do, I didn’t read that far in.

  5. […] going to talk about those ambiguities; you can read Zimmer’s article yourself for that. (Or my post on one of the featured crash blossoms.) What caught my attention was how Zimmer formed an agentive […]

  6. […] course, like McDonald’s fries holy grail for potato farmers, this ambiguity exists only because of the telegraphic style of newspaper headlines. In regular […]

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