My list of flawed headlines again has grown. From word misuse such as squash vs. quash and cement vs. concrete; to mismatching a noun, verb and pronoun; to the redundancy lagging behind, this ruthless editor finds multiple grammar lessons.
Today’s rapid news cycle likely is somewhat to blame. “Haste makes waste,” anyone?
Some examples deal with politically charged topics. Please know that they are selected wholly on the basis of form, not content.
Can Florida Dems Squash Alan Grayson?
Court Quashes 5 Blagojevich Convictions
I’ve written about squash vs. quash before. Squash is to crush something until it becomes flat. Quash is to suppress, stop or extinguish. You quash a bug’s attempt to get into your house. If it succeeds, you squash it. The Blagojevich example is correct; the Grayson example is not.
Better: Can Florida Dems Quash Alan Grayson?
NYPD Commissioner: It’s Hard To Hire Black Officers Since Too Many Black People Have Been Arrested
Since makes this a confusing headline. Does the story say that since the time that many black people have been arrested, it’s hard to hire black officers? Or does it say because too many black people have been arrested, it’s hard to hire black officers? I explained the dangers of using temporal terms since and while in this blog.
Better: Because the headline is so unclear, I don’t’ have a suggested rewrite.
Maddow: Hillary Better Watch Out For Bernie Sanders
When you’re making a recommendation or issuing a warning, had better is the way to express it:
You had better not be late for the meeting.
We‘d better go before it starts to rain.
Better: Hillary Had Better Watch Out For Bernie Sanders
Christian Couple Dedicates Themselves To Spreading Anti-Gay Message
A couple can be singular or plural, depending on the context:
The couple (two distinct people)
was were married three years ago.
The couple (two distinct people)
has have dedicated their lives to caring for animals.
The couple (a single entity) operates
operate a sanctuary for wild animals.
The couple (a single entity) takes
take a skiing vacation every January.
Because using the singular pronoun it would be an odd way to refer to a couple, treating them as two individuals often is the best grammatical choice.
Christian Couple Dedicates Itself To Spreading Anti-Gay Message
Better: Christian Couple Dedicate Themselves To Spreading Anti-Gay Message
New York Stores Pulling Realistic-Looking Toy Guns Off Store
Better: Either of these examples makes more sense:
New York Stores Pulling Realistic-Looking Toy Guns Off Shelves
New York Stores Pulling Realistic-Looking Toy Guns Out Of Store
Minnesota Bicyclists Are Being Targeted With Cement Bricks
Cement is the powder that, when mixed with water, sand and gravel, hardens to become concrete.
Better: Minnesota Bicyclists Are Being Targeted With Concrete Bricks
Lucky Seal Narrowly Escapes Jaws Of A Shark With Incredible Leap
If you saw the video of this online, you watched the nimble seal propel itself into the air and out of reach of the shark’s jaws. Had you not seen the video, you might interpret the headline as claiming the shark made the incredible leap.
Better: Lucky Seal Makes Incredible Leap To Narrowly Escape Jaws Of Shark
Once Shot For Demanding Girls’ Education, Malala Gets All As
I had to read this several times before the context helped me make sense of it. The last four words had me stumped. I was reading: Malala gets all as
When you make either a lower-case or a capital letter plural, insert an apostrophe so your readers can decipher the meaning. Here’s why:
Is I’s did you hear in his speech?
There are three
us u’s in unusually.
Better: Once Shot For Demanding Girls’ Education, Malala Gets All A’s
U.S. is Seen as Lagging Behind in Scramble for Arctic
I rarely find anything to criticize in the The New York Times, but this caught my eye. Lagging is defined as to fail to maintain a desired pace or to keep up; to fall or stay behind. Therefore, lagging behind is redundant.
Better: U.S. Is Seen as Lagging in Scramble for Arctic
I hope you find these real-world examples helpful in showing how to select the right word, the right arrangement, and the right punctuation. Readers skim headlines to decide what to explore in greater depth. Headline clarity matters.
See a questionable headline? Please send it to me: