Don’t Let Headline Errors Hurt Your Credibility

Headline graphic -Ruthless editor talks about Headline errorsI’ve stated more than once that if a writer is going to make a mistake, a headline is the worst place for that to happen. We skim headlines to decide which stories to further explore, so errors there are seen by more readers than errors within a story.

Here’s a batch of recent headlines that, if I were editing them, would not have appeared in their present form:

Simpson’s Creator Dana Gould on Why So Many Comedians Wind Up Self-Destructing? (thedailybeast.com 8.29.14)

This is a statement rather than a question, so the question mark is inappropriate. The writer explains reasons for the self-destruction of comedians.

How to Coach Millennials on Your Sales Team? (LinkedIn marketing group)

Again, this is a statement, a series of instructions. It is not a query about coaching methods.

Species That Are Benefitting From Climate Change (huffingtonpost.com 10.10.14)

Benefiting should have just one t, as should benefited. Benefit is one of those words that doesn’t follow the standard rule of doubling the consonant when you add ing or ed.

After Horrific Past Abuse, Pit Bull Brothers’ Have a Bright Future (huffingtonpost.com 9.4.14)

I see two errors here:
1) After implies that the abuse has occurred, so past is redundant.
2) Brothers’ is not possessive, so it does not require an apostrophe.

Would I Care More About Ferguson if My Son Was Black? (Arizona Republic 11.25.14)

Was is past tense. The caucasian writer’s son is not and was not black at any time. The verb form that should have been used is were, which is the conditional or subjunctive form.

In a column* I wrote a couple of years ago, I used “If I were a rich man” from Fiddler on the Roof as a well-recognized example of correct use. A reader responded with her favorite example, the line from an Oscar Mayer commercial: “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer weiner.”

The Most Unique Baby Names Of 2014 (huffingtonpost.com 12.5.14)

Unique means one of a kind. It is unnecessary and inappropriate to use modifiers such as most, very, sort of, quite or rather with unique.

Why is everyone job-hopping so often? (Linkedin group post 12.8.14)

Job-hopper is defined as someone who works briefly in one position after another rather than staying at any one job or organization long-term; the practice of changing jobs frequently, especially as a means of quick financial gain or career advancement. By virtue of the definition, so often is redundant.

In contrast to the errors above, the next headline made me smile in appreciation — not for its content, but for it’s correct use of the word flout:

GOP Used Twitter to Flout Election Laws (thedailybeast.com 11.17.14)

I many times see flaunt where flout should be used. To flaunt means to display something shamelessly or ostentatiously, especially to provoke envy or admiration or to show defiance. The newly rich sometimes flaunt their wealth.

Flout means to openly disregard something such as a rule, a law or a convention; to openly break a law or disregard a rule without hiding it or showing fear or shame. Flout is used correctly in the headline, as the GOP supposedly disregarded election laws by using Twitter, a highly public forum.

Headline errors are not the end of the world; we many times understand what the writer meant to say. And in some cases, the person who writes the story does not write the headline.

However, an error in a headline can raise questions about the care with which the story itself was composed; a headline error can put into question the writer’s credibility.

* See the upper right corner of this page to sign up for once-a-month Killer Tips from a Ruthless Editor.

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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