Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Class of the Hed

For me, headline writing is a bit of a zen exercise, and so it's hard for me to give tips on how to write good headlines. I can tell you what I don't like, though, and so I'll offer a few don'ts.

Proposal Praised, Decried

  • Good, comma, bad. Variations on the "best of times, worst of times" theme can work well at times. Here, though, I'm talking about the utterly lazy headline analog of the redundant phrase "controversial issue." If it weren't controversial it wouldn't be an issue, and it isn't often that a plan makes the news without having both supporters and opponents.

    Bush a Stupid Idiot, Franken Says

  • Shooting first, coming out of the sniper's nest later. Before I worked for a "paper of record," I had the opposite view on this topic. Give me the meat and then bore me with the attribution, I might have said. And that's still not a bad idea when the emotion in question is relatively tame and the emoter isn't all that important. But when the story is that somebody is making an accusation or any sort of powerful statement, full disclosure demands that the speaker be identified before being allowed to spout.

    As you turn that kind of headline around, though, make sure you don't commit my most hated headline sin: the omission of a helping verb in a verb that isn't the main verb. Bush a Stupid Idiot, if you'll excuse the editorializing, is fine. "Is" is omitted, but it's the main verb, and omitting that word when it's either the auxiliary verb (Bush Denying Franken Charge) or the only verb (Bush a Stupid Idiot) is a well-established headline conceit. "Is" is still the main verb in Bush a Stupid Idiot, Franken Says, and so that form of attribution, despite my other problems with it, is structurally sound.

    But Franken Says Bush a Stupid Idiot is not structurally sound. "Says" becomes the main verb in such a construction, and so the helping verb is required: Franken Says Bush Is a Stupid Idiot. If space does not allow that auxiliary verb, there are verbs that work without helpers. Franken Calls Bush a Stupid Idiot. Or Franken Terms Bush a Stupid Idiot. Or Franken Labels Bush a Stupid Idiot. But you can't say somebody a stupid idiot.

    Bush a 'Stupid Idiot'

  • The naked quote. In related news, this technique also sucks. A paper-not-of-record could get away with America 'Beautiful' over a Fourth of July puff piece, but, in general, quotation marks do not qualify as attribution. If you print that headline, your publication is calling the president a stupid idiot. Better, even, to go with the still-nakeder version: 'Stupid Idiot' all by itself, with a secondary hed explaining what the hell you're talking about, isn't great, but it's a little less likely to be read as your publication's opinion.

    Decline Blamed on Crime, Schools, Economy

  • The threesome. Another basic headline conceit is the use of the comma to mean "and." It isn't the greatest device in the world even when it does work, as the Onion has illustrated (Looters Demand Justice, VCRs), and it really gets pushed to the limit when you use it more than once in the same headline. Join two items if you must, but revert to the serial "and" with three or more.

  • Wednesday, March 15, 2006

    -Ice, -Ice, Baby

    If you occasionally view an autumn leave through your contact lense, why not check an indice?

    It's probably something I'll see all over the place now that I've noticed it once, but I'm pretty sure I had never before seen the last of those singular-via-plural formations until I read a quote by an academic calling some measure of success in Iraq "a positive indice."

    "Indices," of course, is an alternate plural of "indexes," and it's not surprising that the kind of people who use the more eggheady-sounding plural for certain kinds of indexes might stop thinking of "indices" as being indexes at all.

    "Lense" is pretty common, and it's the most innocuous example, as the pronunciation is the same as that of the correct spelling. "Leave" for "leaf" isn't a mistake you see very often, at least among adults, but it's more analogous to "indice" because of the pronunciation difference.

    Tamale, by the way, is another example of this phenomenon (in Spanish, "tamales" is the plural of "tamal"), but I'm less bothered by such transformations when they cross languages. Similarly, I don't see what the big deal is with the supposed redundancy of "Rio Grande River" and "Sahara Desert." (If "ugga-bugga" means restaurant in Uppaduppian and I'm opening an Uppaduppian restaurant, I'm not allowed to call it the Ugga-Bugga Restaurant?)

    Wednesday, March 08, 2006

    A Continuing _____

    Perhaps the closest thing to a coin-toss question in the whole "singular or plural?" realm is choice posed by the word "series."

    A series of programs ___ examining the issue of immigration policy.

    Is? Are? Both, really: The series is examining, and so are the programs. But it's the series that we're really talking about, so is works better.

    A series of explosions ____ rocked the city in the past week.

    This one is easier: The explosions did the rocking, not the series, so make it have.