A pair of letter writers this week reminded me that not everyone on this planet was trained to write headlines.
Hollywood, which rarely offers an accurate representation of a newsroom, also doesn’t know how headlines work.
In the movies, you’ll see full sentences in big, bold print that half fill the front page of a props journal. I understand that in props articles, there is only one headline on the page which helps propel the plot, but to do “THE FINGERPRINTS OF THE REMOTE WIDOW OF WEALTH INDUSTRIAL SILAS MCGREEDY ARE ON A TOOTHED BREAD KNIFE” a title of 120 points is pretty silly.
Space is precious. That’s just not how it works in the real world.
I’ve already mentioned that in titles we almost never use full sentences, unless they’re shortened subtitles. We abbreviate our thoughts and remove articles, punctuation, and verbs with momentum.
We convey the idea of a sentence.
Against this trend in Hollywood, of course, Variety magazine.
An oft-quoted all-caps howler at the top of Variety in 1935 said, “STICKS NIX HICK PIX.”
The story was about how people in rural America tend to dismiss films about farmers.
Seems to me the line might be a riff on “Will this play in Peoria?” which, itself, was a paraphrase of dialogue in a book by Horatio Alger from the previous century.
Although clever, the Variety title is difficult to interpret and forces you to read the accompanying story.
If there was a World Wide Web in 1935, it would be the ancestor of clickbait titles.
I think our titles are much more understandable.
Still, I get questions from time to time.
Joan Graef wrote with a suggestion on how to improve the headline “AP Sources: Judge Breyer to Retire; Biden to Fill Vacancies.”
She argued that this title gives the impression that President Biden would accept a Supreme Court nomination rather than make a nomination.
Hey, the Supreme Court has better job security and less dress requirements than the Presidency, so that’s not the worst idea I’ve heard.
Joan’s suggestion was to make it “AP Source: Judge Breyer Retiring; Biden to Appoint to Fill Vacancies.”
The problem with this title is its length. We don’t want to look like a Hollywood prop, after all.
And logically speaking, Biden could not nominate himself to the high court.
Here’s another example from Barb Chrisman: “I was reading the Herald and saw this headline in the Healthy You insert: ‘How to Increase Your Odds With the Virus’. I had to re-read this several times because to me it meant increasing the chances of getting the virus. Towards the end of the article, in bold, it said: “How to boost your immune system”. So that was what it was about. Was there a best title that could have been used to eliminate the confusion?”
Headlines are tricky, Barb. Due to space constraints, we need to convey the point of a story in a few characters and we also need to entice readers to look beyond the headline. So we rely on people to use logic to fill in some blanks.
“How to Increase Your Chances With the Virus” might be the title of a column with advice on how to woo a virus. But is it logical?
“How to boost your immune system” is much more nebulous. It could be an ad for vitamins, a pitch for an exercise program, or an advice column urging you to avoid chemotherapy.
The hashtag “virus” these days tells you in five characters the story of COVID-19 and its motley crew of variants. It should be understood that this diary would not encourage you to find ways to get closer to this virus.
• Jim Baumann is vice-president/editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim’s new book, “Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and use”, at
grammarmosesthebook.com. Email him at [email protected] and put “Grammar Moses” in the subject line. You can also friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.