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So our headlines stink

A reader castigates us for lazily violating the principles of headline writing:

Your headlines repeatedly use forms of the verb "to be".

For example, a headline on the homepage of the website right now reads, "Two men are slain in shooting at city carryout".

As I'm sure your copy editors understand, this is a newspaper no-no because:

1) It slows down the reader;

2) It takes up precious headline space;

3) It's just plain not classy; and most importantly

4) It undermines the credibility of the reporter and, ultimately, the newspaper.

If your editors are having difficulty writing long-enough headlines, they find a solution that avoids the lazy decision of using a "to be" filler.

As the reader evidently knows, the conventions of traditional headline writing include omitting forms of to be as auxiliary verbs to save space. Using a comma in place of and is another; so is the omission of the definite and indefinite articles. These practices, instituted to save space, contribute to the clipped, elliptical style of the traditional headline.

What the reader is apparently not aware of is the trend in recent years toward more conversational headline language, wherever space permits, because the traditional headline language looks increasingly dated. In fact, despite Article 1 of the reader’s bill of impeachment above, it is the elliptical language that can slow down readers, forcing them to read a headline more than once to gather the sense of it.

At the national conferences of the American Copy Editors Society, workshops by the estimable Alex Cruden, former head of the Detroit Free Press copy desk, have invited civilians — ordinary readers — to comment on representative headlines, revealing that the reader often does not quickly grasp what the headline writer has intended. These readers prize plain language and clarity.

Article 2 insists that using auxiliary verbs is not "classy." How use of the language as it is idiomatically spoken and written lacks "class" eludes me. And Article 4, that headline language the reader can understand undermines the credibility of the publication, I find completely baffling.

Colleagues, readers, what do you make of this bill of particulars?



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:50 PM | | Comments (21)


I would rather have the to be's in there for clarity.

But then again, I'm #3.

I discourage the use of "to be" in a headline, although saying that it undermines journalistic credibility is a little far-fetched. I agree most closely with the following article, which deals with "to be" about halfway through:

I'm old enough to have been read that bill of particulars on several occasions by editors higher up on the food chain than I was.

Come to think of it, even now that I'm an m.e. I've had particularly hobgoblinish writers try to bash me with it.

I instinctively use the comma in place of "and," but I'm training myself out of it.

Clarity rules.

I, too, am baffled by Article 4; among other lapses in its logic, reporters have little or no role in writing headlines.

Your heds need shortened

Do we really need more evidence that nothing is so crazy or stupid that it won't attract fanatical adherents?

Praise be that texting conventions weren't invented by headline writers.: Yr heds R2 long

I was taught headlines should convey as much action as possible and using forms of "to be" make a headline more passive (and therefore less interesting). But then I'm just an old fogie who mourns the steady decline of the "traditional" newspaper.

Grammatically, "Two men slain in shooting at carryout" is every bit as much a passive construction as "Two men are slain in shooting at carryout." Omitting the auxiliary verb does nothing to change that. And a passive construction is always appropriate when the agent of the action is unknown or is less important than the action itself.

I consider myself a bit of an anomaly: a 26 year-old with a newspaper subscription. As Karen Ross hints, the newspaper as it once was it dying out as people begin to use other forms of media that, in my opinion, require them to think less.

Short, concise headlines are great in a traditional, "classy," press-pass-in-the-hat newspaper, but newspapers aren't what people want anymore. The trend towards "ease-of-use" in headlines may seem like simple catering to the ignorant, huddled masses to those romantic souls longing for the days when the Sun was wider, in mostly black-and-white, and didn't have those dammed colored rectangles all over every page. But, as with most things, those traditions that are "classy" and "timeless" are also often stupid and clung to mostly for nostalgia.

Use verbs in your articles. First thing in the morning is not the time to be constructing word puzzles; I say this regardless of how shamefully ignorant and unrefined I may sound.

I don't see that there is anything ignorant or unrefined in a preference for idiomatic English.

Especially since headlines are presumably being written for readers rather than for other journalists.

1) It slows down the reader;

Only if they're on the lookout for forms of "to be" and pause to cry "Aha!" every time they find one. Personally, I think I slow down more when there are more omitted words, because it always takes a moment to fill in the blanks.

2) It takes up precious headline space;

True, I suppose, but if the headline writer can fit it in, then why not use it?

3) It's just plain not classy; and most importantly

I'm pretty baffled here. Since when is headline style considered classy by anyone? (Other than this reader, that is.)

4) It undermines the credibility of the reporter and, ultimately, the newspaper.

Only if you base the newspaper's credibility solely on the degree to which its headlines are elliptical. Personally, I find the quality of the content to be the greatest determiner of a newspaper's credibility—its headlines, not so much.

Looking at this head, if you used "killed” or "die" in place of "are slain" you'd probably be short (the head wouldn't fit). Not knowing the killers intent, we couldn't say "murdered.” I say this person did they best he or she could in the space alloted.

Classy or not is subjective. Yes, active voice beats passive. But it's nutty to assume using forms of "to be” as sloth.

Commenter baffles experts
Complaints disputed
'to be' ok, most agree

It's equally nutty - not to mention just plain wrong - to think that "to be = passive".

I could go either way on the "to be" verbs, but sometimes they introduce some unintentional humor. A Dear Abby headline this week read "Man's family is annoying wife."

"Man's family annoys wife" would've been more straightforward but not nearly as humorous.

Around the middle of the last century the New York Daily News was noted for its headlines, written by dedicated headline writers. And how many of us could digest a story about how movies about clueless rural people did not play well in those areas and write a headline "Stix Nix Hix Flix" as a headline writer for the Daily Variety wrote.

Doesn't this lead eventually to "Two men are slain in a shooting at a city carryout"?

Mark Liberman provides an excellent discussion of this issue on the Language Log blog (, which includes the following observation: "... choosing whether to say that someone was killed by a driver or a car or a collision — or by a shooter or a gun or a bullet — is not a choice of active or passive voice, it's a choice about how to attribute agency, as well as a choice about how to focus a description."

And then there's CLUB FIGHT BLOCKS RAIL RIVER TUBE PLAN, which meets all the criteria in Katie's JPROF list except clarity. Most people have to read it 3-4 times to even be sure where the verb is!

Ridger: Right you are. Declaring that forms of to be = passive voice is nutty and wrong. I should have said so.

I think it's absurd to say that using forms of "to be" or any other small word would reduce a newspaper's credibility. Especially on the Web, it makes sense to use as many words as needed to make the hed clear.

And if there were usually room in print headlines for such words, I have no doubt that they would never have been left out. Internet news has restored some sanity to headline rules, I think, by allowing "to be" or "an" or "the" in headlines. This reminds certain copy editors that the world won't end if it happens in print, too.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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