Why headlines are so easy to screw up

I noticed these headlines while perusing the Boston Globe app this morning. Do they seem a bit off to you?

I’m an editor. My internal grammar checker is like an oenophile’s nose. And something here stinks.

Does Senate candidate Joe Kennedy actually have a head inside of himself? Weird. Did he swallow it or did it grow there?

Are we really like the Great Depression? Being depressed is not the same as being an economic phenomenon.

Check your headlines

Headlines are a few words in a small space doing a lot of jobs. They need to catch your attention. They need match the content. They need to fit. And because they’re in bigger type, they really ought to be free of errors.

Headlines are hard to do and easy to screw up. One reason is that writers keep tweaking them. Remove a word, change a word, and you may turn something that makes sense into a howler.

Double-check your headlines for problems like these:

  • Mixed metaphors. At most one metaphor per headline, please. The Kennedy headline has two — deep inside himself, cool head — and that’s one too many. Better: “Reflecting on his assets, Joe Kennedy discovers a cool head in a time of crisis.” (The article is sarcastic.)
  • Dangling modifiers. If there’s a comma, there’s a possibility for a dangler. If you start a headline with an adjectival phrase, it has to modify the noun that follows — and no, we (readers) are not like the Great Depression. Better: “Just as in the Great Depression, we need 500,000 service year jobs now.” (That’s adverbial, and modifies the whole sentence, not the “we.”)
  • Missing words. Did you delete one word too many? Sometimes an “is” or a “to” goes missing and renders the headline incomprehensible.
  • Typos. That’s what leads to headlines about Julia Roberts’ holes and amphibious baseball pitchers. Homonyms are famously easy to screw up: your for you’re, to for too, there for they’re.
  • Double meanings. I feel for the Kansas headline writer who penned this shocker: “Students get first hand job experience.” The hyphen in the compound adjective “first-hand” would have fixed it.

Editing yourself is hard, because it’s hard to detect your own stink. Try pasting the headline into a different application and staring at it by itself. If you have time, let it sit for an hour or a day and look at it again. Or have a copy editor give it a quick read.

There’s no need to look deep inside yourself. But if you do, and you spot another head in there, please seek immediate medical attention.

4 responses to “Why headlines are so easy to screw up

  1. In the section about dangling modifiers, did you really mean to write “If it there’s a comma…”? I’m an editor, too.

  2. Apart from the missing hyphen in the Mentoring Day piece, there should also be an f-i ligature. Whatever happened to good typography?

    Maybe the editors of this rag should go back and read their “manual.” 🙂

  3. One of the issues is, I believe, that many articles are written by writers who are under so much pressure to get it out fast. There are so many errors in their copy, let alone their headlines. And let’s not even talk about bloggers. They are worse.
    I have to wonder why writers are ok with this sloppiness? Is it because their editors or publishers do not care? Do the editors and publishers even know? If no one calls a writer out on their errors how would they even know the errors are there in the first place?

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