Headline Lessons: Contractions, Redundancies, Verb Forms

HeadlinesToday is a holiday in the U.S. — The Fourth of July (Independence Day) — so many of you probably are not in your office or at your computer.

But my email list is not limited to U.S. residents, so I went to my latest collection of headlines to develop a post for those of you who are toiling through this American holiday.

Headlines and the grammar lessons they teach

original: Artist In Childish Gambino Scandal: ‘There’s So Many Bigger Issues Facing Us’

 better: Artist In Childish Gambino Scandal: ‘There Are So Many Bigger Issues Facing Us’

There’s is the contraction for there is, which is singular. We all know that, right?

And Many Bigger Issues is plural. We all recognize that, right?

So it is grammatically incorrect to write:
There’s (There is) So Many Bigger Issues Facing Us

Yet I hear there’s used in error ALL THE TIME (yes, I’m shouting!) with things that are plural.

And this error, which is my No. 1 grammar pet peeve because it is so pervasive, is not limited to those who are uneducated or careless. It is rampant everywhere among people who should know better. Please pay attention to your use of there’s.

• • • • •

original: Our strong need to be right and it’s impact on our lives

better: Our strong need to be right and its impact on our lives

I hope this is just a haste-makes-waste error, because anyone in the world of journalism should know the difference between it’s as the contraction for it is versus its as a possessive:

it’s = it is |  its = possessive (The dog chases its tail.)

• • • • •

original: 5 Reasons Why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Stands Out

better: 5 Reasons Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Stands Out

Why is almost always redundant when used with reason.

  • The reason why she complained remains to be seen.
  • He wouldn’t tell me the reason why he left early
  • I hope the reason why you called isn’t bad news.

• • • • •

original: What if Facebook Was a Physical Place?

better: What if Facebook Were a Physical Place? 

Was is past tense. Were is the subjective tense. When you write or speak about something that is contrary to fact or hypothetical — something based on a suggestion or theory, not on fact — you use the subjunctive form of the verb.

Sentences where the verb were is appropriate often include if, which implies uncertainty, something conditional: If this were the case, then that would happen.

We know that Facebook is not a physical place; it is a digital place. But what if it were a physical place? (See my book, Chapter 26, for more examples.)

• • • • •

And here’s the lone good example:

original: This Diuretic Could Help Clear Up Acne In Women

I chose it because some writers might separate the verb clear up (called a phrasal verb), which wouldn’t alter the meaning, but it would not be the first choice of most grammarians.

not better: This Diuretic Could Help Clear Acne Up In Women

A phrasal verb consists or two (or sometimes more) words — often a verb and a preposition — that combine to describe an action: clear up, stand up, show up, meet up, rest up.

For a multitude of examples using up and related phrasal verbs, see:

Some Fun with UP: A Much-Used Two-Letter Word


One Word or Two: Use Care With Your Shortcuts

Whether you’re blogging, writing a report or sending an email, grammar counts. I hope these headline examples show that acting as a ruthless editor can make the difference between a good or bad impression.

Thanks for reading, and please share this message with friends or co-workers who also care about grammar.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson 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)

2 thoughts on “Headline Lessons: Contractions, Redundancies, Verb Forms

  1. AvatarTomas Höök

    Dear Kathy,
    In my opinion, spell checkers, as well as other trumped up authorities, ought to be kept on a short leash. Where they rule, the sometimes lowbrow perspective of the “subjective” tends (no pun intended) to be preferred to the toughtful modality of the “subjunctive”. 😉
    I love your blog and your attitude.
    Kindest regards,
    Tomas Höök
    Uppsala, Sweden

    P.S. Should they be kept “on a short leash” or on “short leashes”?

    1. Kathy WatsonKathy Watson Post author

      Tomas, do you use the phrase “opened a can of worms” in Sweden? You’ve delightfully introduced multiple topics in response to my recent blog on headline grammar: “trumped up,” which these days takes on a whole new meaning; your assessment of spellcheck programs (They are far from reliable, so keep them on short leashes vs. a short leash.??); and subjective versus subjunctive. Thanks for taking time to comment—and for making me smile!

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