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Opinion :: Mum on probe: A lesson on headlines, and the challenge of writing them
· 9:53pm March 28th, 2014
“Cops nab pair, mum on probe.”
“Bush taps crony for State.”
Believe it or not, copy editors — the people who are considered the best at using the English language — are the ones who create phrases like these.
In case you did not understand the first headline above, it means that police officers arrested two people, and are not commenting on the investigation.
Of course, it could also mean, according to all of the meanings for those words listed in an unabridged dictionary, that balls of yarn got tangled around the screw assembly on a spinning wheel, and a British person’s mother is sitting on top of a sharp surgical instrument.
The second one means the President has appointed a former colleague to a high-level position with the U.S. State Department. It could also mean, according to the dictionary, that he hit a withered old woman because she sat in the chair of honor.
The challenge of writing a headline is that you have to take a story that could be more than 1,000 words long, and concisely summarize it in just a few words.
That challenge is much different, I have discovered, in writing for a web site, than for a newspaper.
In a newspaper (For 18 years my job included writing many headlines each week) the size of the headline depends on the importance of the story, and where that story goes on the page.
On most web sites, including Vinton Today, the headlines are all the same size. We do have a limit of 90 characters (letters plus spaces) in our VT headlines. Those two things make headline writing easier for us.
But it’s still a challenge.
Those few words must describe the story so that you, our reader, can clearly understand whether the story you are about to read is about an arrest or where someone’s mother is sitting..
A letter to the editor in the Chicago Tribune lambasted that paper for using the word “mum” in a headline.
But there is a very important reason copy editors like using a word like “mum” in headlines.
It is short.
Brevity is an essential component of successful headlining.
Words like “appoints” and “investigation” are probably more accurate descriptions of what the police do or the president actually did for his former associate.
Words like that, however, are often too long.
So we in the news business, including us Internet news site editors, have to look for short words.
So today, I offer you a few popular short headline words, along with their intended meaning, and their original meaning:
• Tilt: This term, used mostly on sports pages, usually means “game.” But originally, a “tilt” referred to a medieval contest featuring two horsemen armed with lances. That, unfortunately, does not happen anymore.
• Tap: This usually means “to choose” or “to appoint.” In the dictionary, “tap’ has several definitions such as “lightly hitting” or “removing a liquid from a container.” Whether or not the word “tap” is proper for use as a synonym for “appoint,” the dictionary, is well, mum.
• Nab: This may not be a pretty word, but for little words, it is very accurate in its definition. It means “to arrest or seize,” especially to seize someone who has done something wrong.
• Probe: Actually, “probe” is a good word to use for “investigation.”
• Mull: This is used in place of “ponder” or “consider.” It means to grind, or ponder, or muddle. It could also refer to a beer made in 1492. So when someone writes that a government body is mulling something, one way or another, it is probably an accurate description of what that governing body is doing.
• Ban: This is an ancient word that means, well, to ban.
• Bid: An attempt or try. It is not the dictionary’s favorite definition, but it is often used in headlines.
• Scrap: Now, “scrap” is used as a synonym for “to throw away,” or when referring to action by a governing body to revoke or reject legislation. In the dictionary, however, “scrap” is never once used this way.
• OKs. This actually appeared in a recent newspaper headline. “O.K.” originally referred to President Martin Van Buren, who was for some reason nicknamed Old Kinderhook (O.K.). The O.K. Club was organized to support his re-election. O.K. eventually evolved to mean OK, the adjective, which means all right; or OK (or okay) the verb, which means to approve something.
• Hike: In the dictionary, it means to hoist or raise, especially one’s britches. In headlines, its colloquial meaning, “to increase,” is implied (although you would love to imagine a government official hiking his britches instead of your taxes).
There are several rules to use in creating headlines, although some papers are beginning to ignore these rules.
Headlines are virtually never complete sentences.
Headlines should include both a subject and a verb (although many papers now leave out verbs).
Why are those rules used for headlines?
Who made those rules, and when?
I don’t know. My bid to probe is scrapped; now I must mull.
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