Headlines Can Put a Writer’s Shortcomings, Skills on Display

Newspaper - breaking newsPeople scan headlines to decide which stories they want to explore further, so every writer wants to avoid a headline mistake. Lots of folks will see it!

Check out this Halloween-related headline from an Oct. 29 HuffPost story:

Before you carve it, might as well use it to mix-up your workout

The story describes how to use a pumpkin as a weight during your exercise routine.

The problem: mix-up is a noun; it’s a state or instance or confusion, or it can be a conflict or fight.

If you want to mix up (add variety to or make lively) your workout by using a pumpkin instead of another kind of weight, you need a verb. The verb mix up — well, it’s actually a verbal phrase — doesn’t need a hyphen.

The Oct. 29 New York Times, on the other hand, included a word in a headline that was correctly written but that has potential for error:

Bearing Gifts, Lobbyists Court State Attorneys General

How many writers (not the careful ones, of course) might have mistakenly used “attorney generals” in this headline?

Plural forms of similar word combinations can be tricky. Here are some common ones:

• mothers-in-law
• commanders-in-chief
• fathers-to-be
• ladies-in-waiting

Rather than add an s at the end, which we normally do to form a plural, the s goes with the principle word. Remember: It’s the mothers, the commanders, the fathers, the ladies who are in multiples.

Just to keep things interesting, it’s cupfuls, not cupful. You could argue, “But it’s cups that are full!” Yes, but it is full cups that are being pluralized, so the entire quantity — cupful — becomes plural: cupfuls.

Aren’t we lucky to have the Internet to help us look good in headlines! We can quickly check what is grammatically correct, saving ourselves time and embarrassment.

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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Kathy Watson
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