Heirs, lawsuits, a real estate mogul — and a headline that causes stack overflow

Disque Dee Deane, photo by Tyrone Dukes/NY Times

The Boston Globe posted an article by Larry Edelman about an intrafamily lawsuit. I had trouble parsing the headline. Here it is:

Widow of mall developer Disque Deane is sued by their children for fraud

What’s the problem here?

Look at it this way. When you read a sentence, you load unknowns onto a mental “stack” for later resolution. The more unknowns, the more stuff that gets piled onto the stack. If there are enough questions, you suffer a stack overflow — your brain loses track of who’s doing what to whom for what reason.

In order, here are the questions that this headline raises:

  • Widow? Whose wife are we talking about?
  • Disque Deane? There’s really a person whose name is Disque?
  • “Is sued”? That’s passive voice. Who is doing the suing?
  • Their children? Whose children? This causes confusion because “is sued” has a singular subject and “their children” implies a plural.

The sentence actually includes the answers to all of these questions, which are, in order “She’s a mall developer’s widow; Disque is his actual name; his children are doing the suing; and they are the children of both the mall developer and his widow.” But you have to think a bit to figure this out. And you shouldn’t have to think that hard when reading a headline — the point is to tell you quickly and directly what you’re about to read.

Just the facts

To figure out the right headline, we need to look at the facts in the article. Here they are:

  • “Disque D. Deane made a fortune developing shopping malls.” (I wish he’d made his bundle bankrolling discos, but regrettably, “disco developer Disque Dee Dean,” while beautifully alliterative, is not accurate.)
  • Deane died ten years ago.
  • He had set aside money for his two adult children, Anne and Carl Deane.
  • They’re suing their mother, Carol Deane, alleging “breaches of fiduciary duty, fraudulent conduct, and outright theft against her own natural children . . . when they were minors and not even 10 years old.”
  • They’ve sued her over finances before, and lost.
  • “Anne runs a fashion company in London and Carl grows soybeans in Bolivia.” (I am not making this up.)
  • Deane’s four children from previous marriages have also sued over finances.
  • The current lawsuit is over $119 million in damages.

Looking at all these facts, what stands out?

That the children are suing their own mother for a $119 million fraud.

Revising the headline

Lots of headlines are in passive voice. That can be a good choice or a bad choice. If you don’t know who did whatever you’re describing, or the person doing the acting is unimportant, passive voice is fine. I’d have no problem with this headline:

Mayor’s car is stolen.

But if the thieves are notable, they should be subject of the sentence. Which of these is better?

Mayor’s car is stolen by raccoons.

Raccoons steal mayor’s car.

Clearly, if raccoons are stealing cars, I want to know about it. Why put the thieves on the stack when you can make them the subject of the sentence? “Raccoons steal mayor’s car” is much better.

In the case of Disque Dean’s estate, the people doing the suing — the offspring — are pretty notable. So let’s put them in the subject of the headline:

Real estate heirs sue their own mother . . .

Now we have a choice. We can emphasize the amount , the fraud, or the father.

Heirs sue their own mother for $119 million of dad Disque Dean’s real estate fortune

Alleging fraud, heirs of real estate mogul Disque Dean sue their own mother

Mall developer Disque Deane set aside millions for his kids. Now they’re suing their mom for stealing it.

Any of those would tell me what I’m about to read. And none of them would overflow my mental stack.

Try to put the most important facts and actors up front in your sentences, especially your headlines. Everything the reader needs to put on the mental stack makes things harder — and your job is make things easier, not to make people puzzle and scratch their heads.

One response to “Heirs, lawsuits, a real estate mogul — and a headline that causes stack overflow

  1. I agree it wasn’t optimally efficient in choosing what to convey, but honestly the thing that bothered me was that I was uncertain whether Disque was the decedent or the widow.

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