Headlines: The Good, The Bad, And The Lessons They Offer

Headline errors provide grammar lessonsHeadlines, along with photos or graphics, catch your attention and draw you into a story.

An error in a headline is much more apt to be seen than an error within the story. I’ve always considered a headline error and a misspelled name the two most egregious mistakes a writer/editor can make — and this Ruthless Editor has made her share.

But errors provide grammar lessons, so when I read something that hits me wrong, I stop to copy/paste it into a Word document for future blog material.

Headlines that avoid common errors also catch my attention. Here’s my latest batch from online news and blogs:


I Wish My Husband Were The Love Of My Life
I was pleasantly surprised to see Were instead of Was. Was indicates past tense, something that has happened, yet it too often is used in this type of sentence structure.

Were, the subjunctive or conditional, indicates something contrary to fact, something that does not exist. Here, the writer wishes her husband were the love of her life, but apparently he is not.

My perennial example for remembering was vs. were misuse comes from a song in the musical Fiddler on the Roof: “If I Were a Rich Man.” Another ageless line from an advertising jingle also works: “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer weiner.”

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Research: Hitler Had Only One Testicle 
Another pleasant surprise — not Hitler’s deficit, but that the modifier Only was in the right place. I would not have been surprised to see only misplaced:
Research: Hitler Only Had One Testicle
A modifier should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies. The emphasis of this headline is the lone testicle, not the verb had. Check out this headline post that has has four — count them: numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7! — examples of only in the wrong place. 

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ISIS Launch Suicide Bomb Attack On Gas Plant North Of Baghdad
ISIS in this case is a single entity, a collective noun. As such, it requires a singular verb:
ISIS Launches Suicide Bomb Attack …

Launch would have been correct if the members of ISIS were described as acting individually:
Members of Isis Launch Suicide Bomb Attack …

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ISIS Kidnaps 300 Cement Workers In Syria, State TV Says
In this headline, ISIS is treated as is should be: a collective noun.
ISIS Kidnaps (not Kidnap) 300 …

But there’s still a problem:

Cement is the powder that, when mixed with water, hardens to become concrete. Referring to Cement Workers could imply that they were formed from cement, which of course hardens to concrete, which in turn could be interpreted that ISIS kidnapped 300 statues. Silly? Maybe. A stretch? Perhaps. But it would not be the first time ISIS has taken artifacts.

This would have been clearer:
Isis Kidnaps 300 Workers From Syrian Cement Factory, State TV Says

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These next three samples have redundancies:

Stanford Rises Up Against PC Overlords
As opposed to Stanford rising down against PC overlords?
Stanford Rises Against PC Overlords would suffice.

Obama Narrows Supreme Court Nominee Short List Down To 3
As opposed to narrowing the list up to 3?
Obama Narrows Supreme Court Nominee Short List To 3 would suffice.

Ted Cruz Faces A Tough Road Ahead
As opposed to facing a tough road behind?
Ted Cruz Faces A Tough Road would suffice.

For more on redundancies, take your pick.

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Here’s more confusion based on word choice:

Israeli Police Shoot Dead Palestinian Who Stabbed Officer
Who would bother to shoot a dead person?

The writer of course wanted to make clear that the Palestinian was killed rather than injured, but it can take a second or third reading to figure it out. Here’s a better option:
Israeli Police Shoot Dead A Palestinian Who Stabbed Officer

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This Is The First Cancer Survivor To Summit Mount Everest
I searched multiple online dictionaries, and none considers summit a verb. This would be better:
Cancer Survivor Reaches Mount Everest Summit

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The GOP Is The Party Of Diversity, Not The Democratic Party
I found myself reacting with, “I know the GOP party is not the Democratic party!”
Considering that GOP means Grand Old Party, this would have been clearer:
The GOP, Not the Democratic Party, is the Party of Diversity

I recognize that with our 24/7 news cycle, writers are churning out stories and headlines as fast as their fingers can fly over a keyboard. Rather than criticize them, I’ll thank them for the grammar lessons, both good and bad.

Send me wacky — or questionable — headlines you see, and pass this on if you have friends or colleagues who might enjoy the insights.

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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)