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Grant Barrett, lexicographer, radio personality, and one of the Voices of San Diego, posed a question for me on Twitter today:

Do you know of a comprehensive list of the tired-isms on the order of "spark debate," "stir controversy," etc.?

Brother, I’ve seen them all.

Stir debate, stir controversy, and their variants crop up when a lack of space—or imagination—prevents the copy editor from telling you what the casus belli is.

Making use of the dated slang that constitutes much of headlinese—nab, nix, lambaste, tout, heist, finger (v.), slay, blast and rap (for criticize), moniker—seems unlikely to capture many readers in the current century.

Pun headlines, particularly pun headlines that use non-standard spelling, are worse than tired. No headline writer with any self-respect or common decency should ever write a headline for a story about a cat using “purr-fect.” No one outside a sports section should ever pun on a person’s name.

Allusions are probably not as fresh and original as you think they are. Some common headline gimmicks that are staler than that chunk of wedding cake you took out of the freezer on your first anniversary:

If you build X, they will come

It’s official ...

The ___man cometh

Any headline that uses the archaic –eth suffix, which will almost always be grammatically incorrect as well as strained.

Still X after all these years

Show me the X

The X stops here

The X are alright

Making it all right makes it no better.

X is the new Y

But, unfortunately, I do not have a comprehensive list of the stock devices to which the lazy and dull-witted resort—nothing comparable to Tom Mangan’s Banned for Life compilation of cliches. I could use some help. Grant Barrett could use your help. I’ve given you a start. And there’s the set of holiday cliches posted previously. How much farther can you take us?




Posted by John McIntyre at 12:40 PM | | Comments (10)


These are all snowclones, a term invented by Geoff Pullum (linguist and author of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Here's Language Log's archive of snowclone articles, and here's the snowclones database.

Waaay off topic but it's kind of funny. Thank you, Paul Krugman. Your mind is as cluttered with trivia as mine--and that's saying a lot!

The Snowclones Database can serve as a proxy for such a list.

When a hed at Fox News says "--- raises eyebrows," it means "a Democrat has said something that, if you take it far enough out of context, demonstrates a profound disrespect for Mom, the flag and apple pie." Just so's you know.

"No one outside a sports section should ever pun on a person’s name."

Should anyone inside a sports section do that? I say no.

I would permanently ban the photo caption for a picture that shows two people laughing (or smiling or just looking pleasant): "X shares a laugh with Y."

Should that not be "further?"

I'm mulling possibilities for your list. I feel a little lazy and may mull all day. A headlibne writer needs 40 adverbs and a mull.

Don't forget "Got X?"

What about that time when University of Texas softball pitcher Cat Osterman threw a "purr-fect" game. Was that a headline writer's transgression?

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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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