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Background

Cited from p. 12 Introduction to Mathematical Thinking by Keith Devlin.

Sisters reunited after ten years in checkout line at Safeway

Ambiguities in newspaper headlines—which are generally written in great haste—can sometimes result in unintended but amusing second readings.

Possible meanings of the sentence:

  1. Sisters had separated and spent their life in a checkout line at Safeway for ten years. Then, they reunited.
  2. Sisters separated ten years ago and they had spent their normal life. Then, they reunited in a checkout line at Safeway.

My question

How do you rephrase the sentence to clearly state meaning 1 or 2, keeping it concise?

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  • If you want it to be a sentence and not a headline: "Two sisters were reunited after having been separated for ten years when they met each other in a Safeway checkout line." There are hundreds of ways to remove the ambiguity - you should probably clarify exactly what kind of answer you're looking for, otherwise this may be closed as "needs more focus". "Keeping it concise" isn't that helpful at limiting the choices because "conciseness" is a bit fuzzy. How much conciseness are you willing to sacrifice for precision (I want to say preciseness because it rhymes, but I'll be boring :))? – ColleenV Apr 15 at 13:57
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Sisters reunited after ten years in checkout line at Safeway

The example has a misplaced-modifier problem and can be interpreted as in A1 below, however unbelievable it may seem.

A1. Sisters had separated and spent their life in a checkout line at Safeway for ten years. Then, they reunited.

A2. Sisters separated ten years ago and they had spent their normal life. Then, they reunited in a checkout line at Safeway.

To rephrase the example to mean A2, we could say

Sisters reunited in Safeway checkout line after ten years' separation

or simply

Sisters reunited in Safeway checkout line after ten years

In the second suggestion, 'separation' can be inferred from the verb.

-3

Sisters separated for ten years were reunited in a Safeway checkout line.

There's no real ambiguity in the original headline, since one of the readings can be eliminated as nonsense.

Another possible ambiguity in the original sentence: The sisters were reunited by chance in the checkout line. vs. The sisters chose to reunite with each other at Safeway.

Another easy elimination of a ridiculous option.

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