9 Flawed Headlines And How To Make Them Better

Man being threatened by big-footMy 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?
thedailybeast.com 7.30.15

Court Quashes 5 Blagojevich Convictions
thedailybeast.com 7.21.15

I’ve written about squash vs. quash before (No. 6 at link). 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
huffingtonpost.com 5.9.15

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 No. 7 of this post.
Better: Because the headline is so unclear, I don’t’ have a suggested rewrite.

Maddow: Hillary Better Watch Out For Bernie Sanders
huffingtonpost.com 6.2.15

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
huffingtonpost.com 8.4.15

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
huffingtonpost.com 8.4.15

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
huffingtonpost.com 8.12.15

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
huffingtonpost.com 8.19.15

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
huffingtonpost.com 8.21.15

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:
How many 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
nytimes.com 8.30.15

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.

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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)

4 thoughts on “9 Flawed Headlines And How To Make Them Better

  1. Kathy WatsonKathy Watson Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Joanne. Let me investigate. Quash often is used in the legal sense as you note, but it also can be used to mean to stifle, suppress, subdue or quell. I’d rather think of someone trying to ‘quash’ — subdue or quell — Alan Grayson than to ‘squash’ him. Stay tuned …

    1. Kathy WatsonKathy Watson Post author

      Research conducted, Joanne! I consulted with my Grammar Geek online group colleagues, and one was able to provide these examples of the verb quash with people as objects:

      * 1904, The Magnetic North, by Elizabeth Robins: “As she lifted her head with an air of sudden protest he quashed her.”

      * 6 July 1980, The Sydney Morning Herald: “When Willesee asked Dolly how she she reacts to her dumb blonde image, she quashed him by replying that she can be as smart as she needs to be, and as dumb as she wants to be.”

      * 30 January 2015, RedState.org: When Duke Medical Student, Bradford Perez, raised concerns over whether Potti was doing legitimate science, he was quashed.

      Yes, it might have been better form to say “Quash Grayson’s Chances.” However, headlines usually need to be short and catchy, and in this case ‘squash’ just doesn’t work. Other opinions welcomed!

  2. AvatarJoanne

    I love your approach, and the examples make them come alive and be memorable.

    Just one question here, for your first example. I have never heard the word “quash” used with a person as the object. I know you can quash a rumor or a subpoena. But it doesn’t sound right to me to say “quash Grayson.” Would it be better to say “Quash Grayson’s hopes” or “Quash Grayson’s chances”?


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