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Crime and pun-ishment

Dutiful editor and Sun employee that I am, I read the whole paper every day. Yesterday morning I opened up the sports section to discover this headline:

Goucher no longer a place to Gopher an easy win

Why Goucher College should have chosen a specimen of Rodentia for its mascot is beyond the scope of my imaginings, but punning in headlines — Gopher/go for, got it? HI-larious — draws my attention immediately.

I have been railing against cheap, obvious puns in headlines for years, trampling out the grapes of wrath for any copy editor using “purr-fect” in a headline about cats, or the feeble example of the godawful headline I’ve put on this post. Puns on names have always been particularly odious. (My middle name is Early, my mother’s maiden name, and perhaps years of playground wit have conditioned this reaction.)

But before I drop something heavy from a great height on the hapless wretch responsible for the Gopher headline, I pause to reconsider. I have been assured after indulging in these harangues in the past that no, these plays on people’s and teams’ names constitute the particular charm of sports sections, that readers relish them.

So I put it to you: Am I misguided? Tone deaf to the distinctive sensibility of the sports page? Wrong to bristle at the innocent playfulness of the Gopher headline and others like it? Should I lighten up? What say you?

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:20 AM | | Comments (19)


Puns in headline = skipping article

John, of course, you're talking about a headline in the print edition, but I should point out that pun headlines often are even worse online because they are often anti-SEO (though not in this case). The job of the headline is to attract readers to the story and to convey some of the news/essence of the story. Really strong pun headlines (a rare but not extinct bird) can do both effectively. Strained puns are bad at both.

Among the proscriptions:
-- Never pun on an individual's name. People treasure their names -- even Mr. Seymour Butz.

--Pass up the low-hanging fruit (purr-fect).

--Remember that puns are aural humor. A written version may be incomprehensible if you're not sitting and reading the paper out loud.

That said, I think there's a place for a truly clever pun on a silly, lighthearted story. Unfortunately, none spring to mind at this moment.

As a fan of the oxymoronically named Civil War, the only thing on my mind is the possibility of a Jubal in your history.

A pun that means something in both interpretations: Good.

A pun that sharpens or amplifies the literal interpretation: Good.

A pun that jabs you in the ribs -- "Funny, right? See what I did there?" -- is to be killed on sight.

Sports sections are playpens. The one bad thing they can do is take themselves seriously. Puns should be encouraged.

I think you need to lighten up on sports. Following my boyhood rules from the time I could read, I check out the Phillies first, and then what's going on in a world I don't' understand 50 years later. Oh, I used to check out Pogo, and Family Circus was in there too. I didn't understand Pogo too much around 1960, but the animals looked cute.

Sports sections are playpens. The one bad thing they can do is take themselves seriously. Puns should be encouraged.

I loathe puns in headlines, and the one you cite is particularly infelicitous. I don't see any reason why the sports section should be held to lower editing standards than the rest of the paper.

There are quality puns, and there are lousy puns (and yes, there is a difference!)

For example, if the Baltimore Ravens were shut out in a game, I would have little problem with the headline "Quoth the Ravens, "Never score...".

I find little use for the purr-fect pun, as it is far from original. Good puns take true creativity...

My weakness as a copy editor is knowing when to be a stickler. It's easier for me to always be one, but I don't think my co-workers, especially the writers whose copy I edit, like this trait. No matter, I think the important thing is to set a tone and stick with it. And I, dear kindred soul, would happily follow your lead and banish that headline and all others like it to the caverns of h-e-double toothpicks.

Unfortunately, puns are almost always lost on someone. One of the best headlines I saw was on a feature about farriers that read, "They Shoe Horses, Don't They?" Anyone unfamiliar with either the novel or the movie of a similar name didn't get it.

I can't remember ever seeing a headline pun that I liked. I'd say at least 99 percent of them are of the elbow-in-the-ribs type.

Welcome back, Professor McIntyre!

I wonder if the wrapped up fish and parakeets in cages enjoy the use of puns in headlines as much as I do.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of a certain 1990 sci-fi adventure movie along with Sharon Stone, runs for office in the 2003 California Recall election. Do I have to tell you what headline I saw a lot of?

A newspaper's Sports Section is like a rumpus room. Sure you get to play around and be loud with your friends there, but that doesn't mean there are no rules governing behavior (e.g., it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye). A well placed pun is allowed (and I'll go along with Bruce Robinson's categories above), but punning merely for it's own sake is just poor journalism.

I figure the test should be that if Ring Lardner would be all right with a particular headline above his story, then the headline is all right by me too. Would his story have warranted a pun for a headline? Fine then. But if Ring would have thought not, then don't use it. (And if the sports writers and editors can't discern what standards Ring would have used - or, worse yet, don't know who he is! - then they should go take some remedial journalism classes.)

Yeah, enough with the puns. This isn't the New York Daily News, after all.

On an unrelated note: I had no idea that there was anyone else in the world besides my father and I who had that middle name. It's a small club, to be sure.

A review of the new Robin Hood movie:

"Nothing much to Crowe about"

"Gopher an easy win" isn't much of a pun, but it didn't raise my hackles either. I don't have any set rules on a pun's acceptability. My tolerance of obvious puns may be higher than most folks', but I would regard purr-fect and its ilk as criminally tedious.

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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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