Fixes for Ambiguous Headlines
Headlines that can be read more than one way, or that contain a confusing or erroneous element, have been a source of amusement for journalists and newshounds — and of consternation for the perpetrators — since the dawn of written mass communication, but anyone who writes or edits should be aware of the dangers of careless headline writing. Here are several headlines that prompt a double take.
1. “Gadhafi Forces Retreat”
This could be interpreted as meaning “Gadhafi compelled rebels to retreat” or “Gadhafi’s military units were compelled to retreat” — two readings about as diametrically opposed as possible. Space is often a consideration in print publications, requiring verbal shortcuts and curt words, but “Gadhafi’s Forces Retreat” or “Gadhafi Forces Foes to Retreat,” depending on the intended message, adds no more than a few characters.
2. “Second Toddler Found in Pool Also Dies at Hospital”
This headline reads as if the toddler died twice — once in the pool, and then again at the hospital. The explanation that two toddlers had been retrieved from a pool, and that one had already died at the hospital, should be introduced in the article, not in the headline. The solution is to not attempt to make a reference to the first toddler at all: “Second Toddler Found in Pool Dies at Hospital.”
3. “Retiring Police Officer’s Novel Tactics”
This headline can be read three ways, listed in increasing order of likelihood: 1) “A shy police officer’s unusual tactics,” 2) “A police department is ceasing to use a police officer’s unusual tactics,” and 3) “Unusual tactics of a police officer about to retire.” (The headline could also be referring to a full-length work of fiction — perhaps the officer, now retired from law enforcement, is applying his or her knowledge of police tactics to the plot of a novel — but that misreading is unlikely.)
The headline’s intended meaning is the third one, and though no one is likely to assume otherwise, the ambiguity is nevertheless distracting. “Novel Tactics of a Retiring Police Officer” has only three more characters and spaces than the original headline, and although retiring could still be misconstrued as referring to a personality trait rather than cessation of a career, that’s a stretch; the inverted word order makes the context clearer, diminishing the probability of initial confusion.
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