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Donaldsonville Chief
  • Wood on Words: Headline tricks of the trade

  • Last summer we heard from a reader who was alarmed by this headline on a short item on the front page: ‘Utter disregard’ for Muslims. She felt it was expressing opinion instead of fact.

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  • Last summer we heard from a reader who was alarmed by this headline on a short item on the front page: ‘Utter disregard’ for Muslims. She felt it was expressing opinion instead of fact.
    And she was right — but it wasn’t the newspaper’s opinion, it was someone else’s. That’s why that part of the headline was set off by quotation marks.
    Almost everything that appears in a newspaper can be considered as being “said” by someone at the paper — one of its reporters or editors or a person at one of the wire services.
    To identify the stuff that is a non-newspaper person talking, we use quotation marks. In a story, the quoted person should be clearly identified.
    Because of space limitations, that’s not always possible in a headline. But a reader should be able to find the phrase that’s within quote marks in a headline repeated in the story, with its source identified.
    There are a number of newspaper shortcuts for headlines. Most of them have been created to accommodate the limited space available for them. You can’t just add a line to a headline when you want to if there isn’t room for it on the page. And you can’t continue it on another page, as is sometimes done with stories.
    (This is called “jumping” a story in newspaper talk. Readers sometimes have more colorful names for it — they usually don’t like it when a story jumps.)
    Several of these space-saving adjustments involve punctuation. For example, as mentioned above, single quote marks are used for actual quotations by other people. They also can indicate a pun or other unusual usage — both of which require delicate judgment.
    Another headline device is to precede a quote, or even a paraphrase, with the name of the person who said it, followed by a colon. This space saver allows the elimination of a word like “said.”
    One of the best-known examples of this headline device appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News in October 1975. New York City was facing bankruptcy, and President Gerald Ford delivered a speech in which he pointedly said he would veto any legislation that called for a federal bailout of the Big Apple. The headline:
    FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD
    Instead, Ford dropped his veto stance a month later and urged Congress to approve loans for the city.
    As for other punctuation adjustments, headlines generally don’t end with a period, as sentences do. This saves a tiny bit of space, and is a signal of sorts that headlines are rarely complete sentences.
    A headline also uses a semicolon instead of the combination of a comma and a conjunction to set off two parts of a compound sentence. There are times when just a comma will do the trick, but this also is a judgment call.
    Page 2 of 2 - A headline can end in punctuation, however. If it concludes with material requiring quote marks, it will have a single closed quote at the end.
    One also can end with an exclamation point, but this is rarely called for. A newspaper shouldn’t be screaming.
    And, of course, if the headline poses a question, it will end with a question mark. There are people in this business who would ban question marks from headlines. This “rule” is usually set forth with a proclamation along the lines of, “We should be answering questions, not asking them.”
    This always sounds clever initially, and I agree with its noble sentiment. But it has been my experience (in writing headlines for nearly 40 years) that newspaper stories sometimes don’t answer questions. In fact, something that’s unanswered can be the most interesting part of a story — the lure of the mystery.
    I’ve been known to write a “question head” now and then, and I’ve never heard of a reader complaining about them — except for newspaper bosses who read.
    But enough about punctuation. My final note today is about verb tenses.
    Newspaper stories are generally about things that have happened, requiring verbs in the past tense, or things that are scheduled to happen, requiring verbs in the future tense.
    Headline verbs, however, are usually in the present tense. This convention is from the days when a printed newspaper was the only way people could get news, except by word of mouth, of course. The idea is that the newspaper headline is telling you (in the present tense) what is going on in the story.
    The same approach is used for most cutlines, those blocks of words that go with photographs.
    It’s as close as print can get to being in the moment.
    Next time: All about “another.”
    Read Barry Wood’s Wood on Words blog at www.rrstar.com/blogs/barrywood.
     

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