Friday, September 17, 2010

Bad phrasing

Give the poor human brain a break, all right? It gets up in the morning, it lets you make it a cup of coffee, it tries to get you going on the rest of the day, and then you turn around and subject it to headlines like this.

This is a problem of phrasing, and it's why an editing class should still spend a little time on matters of form (I was tempted to call it "elegance," but you could also call it "neuropsychology") before dashing off to the annoying yet marketable world of search-engine optimization. We're tricking the parser here. "NCAA steps up rules" is a perfectly formed sentence in and of itself. The trouble is that "rules" isn't the bull goose noun in the NP in question. That honor goes to "efforts," meaning that (despite having already solved one clause at the top of the front page) your poor brain has to go back and recalculate the whole thing with "efforts" as the direct object.

Wouldn't it be easier to take all that into account in the first place? To make the first line say something like, oh, "NCAA steps up efforts," so that the second line can say "to enforce NNNNNN rules," because all of a sudden you can actually say something about what sort of rules the enforcement of which is about to be stepped up?

Really. If you're going to lead the Friday paper with a college sports story,* the least you can do is pitch the headline at a level I can read. And if the lede** is on the order of:

As William Friday*** closely follows reports of NCAA investigators heading to campuses across the country during the past three months, he can come to only one conclusion.

... you probably want to think about whether you have a lead story in the first place. Apply the basic test for news heds: Can you write a subject-verb-object hed from the lede?

... and you'll probably decide that we have the wrong story at the top of the front. Perhaps that wouldn't be a bad thing.

* The dean must be waxing wroth.
** Normally, dear readers, I would provide you a link here, but the day's top story seems to have gone behind some sort of GoGamecocks firewall. Bear in mind that these are the sort of people who put mustard in their barbecue sauce.

*** Better known as Bill Friday if you've paid any attention to public life in North Carolina over the past five decades or so. He's one of the genuinely admirable figures in it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, tell Roth to wax the dean for a while.

In any case, I'm not sure my brain particularly wants to encounter "Friday reaches conclusion" first thing of a Friday morning, either above or below the fold. Did I oversleep?

6:10 AM, September 18, 2010  
Anonymous Writing Student said...

I agree, the title is too complicated. It requires some good practice to get used to newspaper headlines in English, as they aim to be overly short and informative at the same time, but as with this case, the result can be baffling.

7:47 AM, September 23, 2010  

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