7 Types of Headline Headaches

By Mark Nichol

Throughout the history of journalism, headlines have evolved as a method for distilling the content of an article into a handful of words that will draw readers into the piece, and they serve that function for other types of informative content such as newsletters and reports. However, in publications that are not carefully edited, especially on post-it-right-now websites, headlines can invite the wrong kind of curiosity, combined with confusion or derision, when they’re published with errors. This post examines various types of common mistakes.

1. Poor Grammar
This subheadline, under a headline about cell phone antennas, starts with a dangling modifier: “Numbering Over 2,400 in City Alone, Neighborhoods Say ‘Enough Is Enough.’” (The sentence construction implies that the figure refers to the number of neighborhoods.) The subject should be repeated (preferably, with elegant variation), and the quote must be preceded by a comma: “Towers Number 2,400 in the City Alone, and Neighborhoods Say, ‘Enough Is Enough.’”

2. Awkward Syntax
“Man Throws Woman Off Overpass, Then Self” isn’t wrong, and it could be argued that the suicide part of the suicide-murder is the key point, but the headline is clumsy and is better rendered “Man Throws Woman, Then Self, Off Overpass.” And the literal meaning of “Man Accused of Putting Bodies in Barrels in Court” is that the off-putting putting took place in the courtroom; this misplaced modifier is easily corrected: “Man Accused of Putting Bodies in Barrels Appears in Court.”

3. Incorrect Usage
A common error is perpetrated in “Less Drinking-Related Problems Reported at College.” (The problems are quantifiable, so fewer is the correct word choice.) In “VW to end making bugs in Mexico,” capitalized in sentence style rather than headline style, the choice of the first verb is awkward (stop is better), and Bugs, though a nickname for a brand name, is still a name and should be capitalized.

4. Redundancy
Repetitive wording is rare in headlines, but when money is concerned, headline writers can become careless, as in “Get $100 Bucks for Recycling Old Computer Gear” and “$1.4 Million Dollars Later, No Progress.” (This type of error shows up in the articles themselves, too, as in “Taxpayers spent $1.4 billion dollars on everything from staffing, housing, flying, and entertaining President Obama and his family last year.” There’s also a parallelism error in the list; the sentence should read something like, “Taxpayers spent $1.4 billion on everything from providing staffing for President Obama and his family last year to housing, flying, and entertaining them during that period.”)

5. Misspelling
Periodicals pride themselves on factual accuracy, but misspelling familiar names is an unfortunately common occurrence, as in “Jennifer Anniston Talks About Having Babies” (her last name is spelled Aniston) and “Smith Is the Michaelangelo of Real Estate” (the artist’s name is styled Michelangelo).

6. Incorrect Punctuation
An article headlined “To Some Graffiti Is Art, Others Its Vandalism” not only omits a pair of commas and an apostrophe and flubs another punctuation mark but also leaves out a word; it should be “To Some, Graffiti Is Art; to Others, It’s Vandalism.” Another headline also lacks an apostrophe: “Officials Past Helps Him Plan the Future,” where officials is treated as a plural rather than in singular possessive form.

7. Erroneous Use or Lack of Hyphenation
Gratuitous hyphenation, such as that in the headline “Soldier Guilty in Parachute-Tampering” — the hyphen is appropriate only if “parachute-tampering” is a phrasal adjective preceding a noun such as case — is annoying but innocuous, but the mangling of the age range in “Most 18-29 Year-Olds Sleep with Their Smartphones” (correction: “Most 18- to 29-Year-Olds Sleep with Their Smartphones”) is embarrassing.

Nor does erroneous omission of hyphens in standing phrases reflect the rigorous quality control that assures readers of a newspaper’s accuracy; “Cease Fire in Liberia” and “Debate Free for All” should read “Cease-Fire in Liberia” and “Debate Free-for-All.”

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6 Responses to “7 Types of Headline Headaches”

  • edd

    Grammar and syntax. If you get right thoe two, your headline is going to shine :))) .

  • Bill

    I’d also mention capitalization issues. AP style makes sense:
    Capitalize the first word of every letter except articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions of three letters or fewer. There’s one exception: Any word that is the first word in the headline or the last word should be capitalized, regardless of its part of speech.
    More newspapers these days, including my own (The Philadelphia Inquirer) just capitalize the first letter of the first word in heds, not counting proper nouns, of course.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Nichol, you have hit the nail on the head with you exposition about poor title lines for articles**. To me, they often evoke the response “Gag me with a spoon” – and it is too bad that so few young people are familiar with the movie VALLEY GIRL.

    Also, I am old-fashioned enough to hold firmly to the idea that a “headline” belongs only at the top of the first page of a newspaper, and not other places. E.g. DEWEY BEATS TRUMAN in a newspaper in Chicago in 1948. You need a different word or phrase for the title line of an individual article in the news.

    By the way, Chicago is in the Central Time Zone, and the newspaper there projected that Mr. Dewey of New York would win the election. However, in the Electoral College, Mr. Truman carried all of the states that are all or partially in the Mountain Time Zone: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. However, the big prize came in the Pacific Time Zone, where Truman carried Califonia, and also Washington and Nevada. Mr. Truman also carried Texas.
    Even in 1948, California was a populous state with 25 votes in the electoral college. (California has about 50 now.)

    Among the more populous states, Mr. Truman carried California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, Texas, and North Carolina.
    Mr. Dewey carries these large states, all in the East:
    Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York (47 votes), Pennsylvania (35 votes), so in a way if was reasonable to think that Dewey would win.

    Mr. Truman’s “lucky number” in this election was 12 because he got 12 electoral votes apiece from Georgia, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
    He also got 11 apiece from Kentucky, Minnesota, and Virginia.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    **Comment. I think that many journalism companies give the job of writing title lines to their least-experienced employees, instead of their most-experienced employees. That is the only reason that I think that such wretched title lines get written and published.

    Yesterday, there was one that said AIR FORCE NEARLY DETONATED ATOMIC BOMB OVER NORTH CAROLINA IN 1961.
    I wrote them an e-note that said that the word “detonate” implies that it was a DELIBERATE ACT, and that this notion was completely foolish.
    The article was about something that was a complete accident, so the word “detonated” was nonapplicable.
    I also noted that the article was from a French journalism agency, and I pointed out that people who speak French are ill-equipped to know that words in English have implications as well as denotations.

    I had an English course once in which the textbook discussed the “connotations” and “denotations” of words. Learning about those was a tremendous experience!

    Also, note that a good dictionary in French has about 100,000 words in it, but a good dictionary in English has about 300,000 words. (One in German has about 200,000 words.) Hence, people who were raised on French are ill-equipped to master a language that has such a huge working vocabulary as English does. Germans and Austrians have a head start on this idea.

    Note that I said a “good” dictionary, and not a massive one that contains hundreds of thousands of words in chemistry, engineering, physics, agriculture, etc. Something like the O.E.D. has over 1,000,000 words in it. That is mind-boggling
    D.A.W.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Mark,
    Wonderfully useful article. Would that every newsroom could display it over the desks of their headline writers.

  • Frenchie

    @Dale A. Wood, I strongly object to your comment stating the people that are raised on French are ill-equipped to master a language that has such a huge working vocabulary as English does. What do you consider a “good” French dictionary? The ones I use are as extensive as the “good” English dictionaries. There are many French dictionaries that I would not use as they have different purposes, just like English ones.
    Also, as a French person who is a trained English translator, I am quite confident in my mastery of the English language. Based on the texts I see routinely, I have mastered the English language better than some native speakers, as have many of my French friends.
    The problem I come across most often with clients and in general is that they don’t really care about word choice and they think their message is getting through when it often isn’t. This is also a problem that occurs in every language.

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