Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Wait, Who's Abusing the Dog Paths?

I'm sure the New York Times improved this Page One headline for subsequent editions, but on my early peek I saw this:

Abuses Dog Paths of Young Magazine 'Crews' 

In addition to its being, finally, one iffy headline that I won't get yelled at about, it illustrates one of the many problems we face as headline writers: the possibility that nouns will be read as verbs and vice versa. It took me about half a dozen readings before I realized that Abuses was not a subjectless verb but rather a plural noun, making Dog not a noun or a noun adjunct describing Paths but rather a verb. Nobody's abusing any dog paths, but abuses are dogging these crews' paths.

The plausibility of "dog paths" as something that could indeed exist and be written about compounds the "noun or verb?" problem, and even if you get a glimmer of the story's real subject, noun dogs could still conceivably be involved (as a colleague of mine said, "At least it isn't what I feared -- a story about how these salespeople are often attacked by dogs").

The headline isn't helped by the quotation marks, justified as they may be, on "Crews," or by the fleeting appearance that we're talking about a young magazine, not young people making up these "crews." Too many distractions.

I've certainly looked the other way at one or two of these issues when I couldn't think of a better alternative, but a headline can survive only so many potential distractions. (And the Times is consistently excellent at avoiding such problems, which is why this example stood out for me.)