Monday, November 19, 2012

The Breaks

The following is an outtake from my forthcoming book, "Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk." My editor considered it too inside-baseball for an audience larger than newspaper copy editors, and she was probably right.


In the arcane subculture of the headline writer, there is a concept called the bad break. As with pretty much everything else I’m writing about, those rules have relaxed over the years. There was a time when many newspapers would have rejected the following:

heads to

Are you horrified by that preposition at the end of the second line? Yeah, me neither. But I’m still enough of a traditionalist to consider the following break — leaving a preposition at the end of the first line — undesirable. I don't rule out such breaks, but I try to avoid them.

President heads to
Dominican Republic

Chances are, if you’ve never been initiated into the headline-writing fraternity, you didn’t see an aesthetic problem with that break either. And you’d be onto something. For many years now at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, Alex Cruden, now retired from the copy desk of the Detroit Free Press, has invited civilians into our world and asked them to evaluate headlines. He’s found that they rarely if ever care or even notice how headlines break — and not only in the case of obscure technical violations involving prepositions, conjunctions and articles.

Cruden and others argue that the utter lack of reader awareness of such things is a good reason not to worry about them. That viewpoint has clearly gained traction, even among copy editors who remain largely hidebound when it comes to the dictates of their stylebooks. The following examples come from my own paper, the Washington Post.

N.Y. banker contributed
money, time to cancer
group for young people

Fifteen years after discovering taekwondo at a mall
kiosk, Alexandria’s Jennings is bound for London

Savage gives first crash
course in sex on campus

Whistleblower sues IRS to get reward
Claims disclosures showed how Dutch
bank helped clients avoid paying taxes

Are you horrified? Please be horrified. Sparing readers a preposition at the end of the first line of a headline is a tiny act of elegance that you can take or leave, but — except in narrow one-column headlines, in which all bets are off — readers should not be led to believe even for a nanosecond that a New York banker loves cancer. Dan Savage gave a crash? Oh, a crash course. A Dutch bank is a Dutch bank, not a Dutch ... bank. We can debate just where these examples fall on the continuum from tiny act of elegance to colossal act of courtesy, but line breaks separate; they cause a reader to pause, however briefly. To dismiss the importance of line breaks is to deny poetry.

It’s mainly the poetry — the rhythm — of the headline that I’m talking about here, but occasionally a bad break can be a fatal flaw, changing the message conveyed. A Columbia Journalism Review compilation of humorous headline gaffes includes this one:

Man shot in back,
head found in street

The humorous misreading is still possible with the “back, head” part unbroken, but I think it’s a lot less likely. One of Jay Leno’s headline-mocking books offers a similar example:

powered by
human flies

I’m not sure whether any of Alex Cruden’s people-off-the-street sessions included headlines like those. Obviously, any literate person would notice the humor in those examples as they were published; the question becomes whether they would feel precisely the same way about them laid out like this:

Man shot in back, head found in street

Helicopter powered by human flies

Or this, if you’ll excuse the problem of line lengths (a problem that’s also on our radar):

Man shot in back, head
found in street

Helicopter powered by human

While I consider Cruden’s research admirable and useful, especially when I’m worried about a questionable break and have no time to fix it, I have to raise the question: Is what readers would notice really a valid criterion upon which to base editorial judgment? We spell supersede and stratagem and, heck, judgment the way we do because those are the correct spellings, even though a large majority of readers would never register supercede or strategem or judgement as an error.

Furthermore, I’ve always thought that bad breaks carry a subliminal message of sloppiness. Readers may not think they notice them, but I’d like to see a controlled study in which they’re presented with two otherwise identical pages, one following the old conventions and the other ignoring them. I’d bet my green eyeshade they would rank the former as somehow more polished, more professional, even more credible.

That cumulative effect, I think, holds true for all tiny acts of elegance. A bad break here, a usage not quite finished evolving into universal acceptance there, and the next thing you know, there’s a general aura of sloth.