Monday, January 05, 2015

Heds made easy

Here's the basic, when-in-doubt, fallback rule for writing news headlines: Look for the first independent clause, determine who did what to whom, and write about that. 

North Korea criticized the U.S. on Sunday for slapping new economic sanctions on government officials and organizations Friday after a cyberattack on Sony Pictures — the latest fallout from a Hollywood movie depicting the fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

So even if you (hem) missed the "Friday" in the lede or (kaff) didn't read the brief at the same spot on 2A Saturday:

... your old friend grammar will come to the rescue. Let the relative clauses or participial phrases help you pick meaningful nouns and verbs, but when you have to write a hed in a hurry, ask who did what to whom, and that will tell you how today is different from yesterday, and there's your headline.

Why bother? To be strictly mercenary about it, the War on Editing is not going to end well for us if we can't show that we're doing something useful -- for example, actually reading the stuff before we pick out a few big words to entice and alarm the audience. If what we're doing instead is -- well, let's move down to the fourth brief in the column:

The 54-year-old second son of Queen Elizabeth II was named in papers filed with a Florida court last week as part of the woman’s lawsuit against American financier Jeffrey Epstein, whom she says forced her to have sex with prominent people. The woman claims she was forced to have sex with the royal in London, in New York and on a private Caribbean island between 1999 to 2002.

That's quite a bit of trimming and moving around, the upshot of which is to insert an error in the AP's already tormented prose:

The filing was submitted as part of a lengthy lawsuit against American financier Jeffrey Epstein, who the woman claims forced her to have sex with prominent people, including Prince Andrew.

I'm glad we got rid of the "claims," though the effect is somewhat lost when the "sex with the royal" graf is tacked on, with "claims" intact. If you wanted to fix some grammar, on the other hand, there's this on page 4A:

Scott, who suffers from insomnia, tried flotation at the NeuroFitness Center in Southfield, one of three places in Michigan that has flotation tanks, after a friend recommended it.

The relative clause is pointing to "places," not "one," so it needs "have." There's a reason variations of this one are going to show up several times over the course of the semester. You'd be surprised how much trouble you can stay out of -- in heds and text -- if you pay attention to the grammary bits.

How about "sanctions" as a hed verb? Correct grammar, unpleasant usage. "Sanction," meaning to confirm or authorize, has been around since the late 18th century; the OED dates the "impose sanctions on" meaning to 1956. I won't sit around and tell you it's "wrong," but I'll be happy to tell you I dislike it. Not nearly as much as "defend" to mean guard an opposing player ("Smith defends Jones," as in the football cutline on 1C), which doesn't seem to have reached the dictionary's notice yet, but certainly enough to gently suggest changing it. Ignoring the rules is a poor way to win that discussion, and it's not going to be much help next time the desk has to defend a position from the budget ax, either.

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