Wordy, not classy, and lazy

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A reader of the Baltimore Sun wrote recently to slam the paper for its headlines. As quoted by John McIntyre on his blog:

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.

There's just so much here, not all of it touched on by McIntyre and the commenters on this posting.

Last thing first: the charge of laziness. Commenters on usage quite commonly attribute the motive of "laziness" to the user of any variant they believe to be incorrect/wrong. The idea is that the writer or speaker was too lazy to find out what the correct/right variant is — or if the writer or speaker believes that their variant is in fact correct/right, then they were too lazy to have learned otherwise ("they should have known better"). It's not enough to say that the variant is incorrect/wrong, but the user of the variant must also be maligned.

Then point 3, which baffled McIntyre and several commenters. I think I see what's going on here: the commenter believes that No BE is actually one of a number of generalizations characterizing correct headline form, analogous to the generalizations characterizing (formal) standard (written) English — what many people think of as the "rules of grammar" for English. (Think of this as point 0: "this is a newspaper no-no".) So using forms of BE in headlines would be analogous (for the complainant) to using flagrantly non-standard variants (like "double negatives", ain't, 3sg don't, past-tense done, etc.) in serious writing. That is, it's not "classy", in the same way that "I ain't done nothin' about it" isn't "classy".

Point 4 follows from this: if the paper uses non-standard variants, its reputation is tarnished.

The core of the objection is point 0, the claim that the characteristically "telegraphic" features of headlines are normative, that is, effectively obligatory for good headlines. This is just nutty.

The telegraphic features of headlinese did, of course, evolve as a way of compressing information into small spaces: omitting (certain instances of) forms of BE, omitting (certain instances of) the articles a(n) and the, using simple present for perfect ("two men are slain" for "two men have been slain", when the former is virtually impossible in non-headline writing, or of course in speaking, to report a recent slaying), and so on. But they've never been obligatory; longer variants have always been possible, and can be found all over the place (I'll discuss some examples below). What headlinese offers is alternatives — plus an indexing of the world of newspaper headlines, hot news, distanced reporting, and the like. More modest use of headlinese can convey a more conversational and engaged tone and the like. One of these is not better than the other; they're simply different ways of talking.

On to point 2: well, not taking up precious headline space is not the only virtue in the world. Clarity and comprehensibility are also important.

The simplifications of headlinese eliminate all sorts of clues to structure and meaning, forcing the reader to fall back on context, background knowledge, plausibility, and the like. All those "little words" are precious cues to meaning and intent. Excising them is not necessarily a good idea.

Which brings me back to point 1, the claim that the more explicit variants slow down readers simply because they have more words. It's true that each word takes some time to process, but the time is tiny, and the processing burden is exquisitely sensitive to what sorts of words we're talking about. "Structure words", like forms of BE, articles, etc. facilitate processing by giving cues to structure and function. They can speed things up.

But the complainant's deeper objection seems to be a version of Omit Needless Words, carried to an absurd conclusion:

If you can omit some word(s), you must.

In particular, if the conventions of headlinese allow you to omit certain material, you must.

Why would someone think this? I believe that there are three relevant background assumptions here, which I'm stating in very loose terms:

(A) Semantic Equivalence: alternative formulations are in general equivalent in meaning.

(B) One Right Way: alternative formulations are to be shunned; in any given context, only one of the alternatives should be allowed.

(C) Brevity Rules: a shorter alternative is always to be preferred to a longer (because the longer alternatives are said to be fuzzy, imprecise, etc.).

I've posted a number of times on the first two assumptions, not much on the third, though I must say it's a very odd idea — forcing readers to do a ton of inferencing when they could be given at least some clues, even within the strictures of the headline world. No doubt (C) is a response to the practices of novice writers, who often ramble and embellish, but we're not talking about novice writers here. This is about journalistic practice, and I can't see why headline writers shouldn't give readers as much help as they can, within the space limitations.

[A side point: reader Karen Ross posted on McIntyre's blog on 19 March to say:

I was taught headlines should convey as much action as possible and using forms of "to be" make [sic] a headline more passive (and therefore less interesting).

to which McIntyre replied that

"Two men slain in carryout" is every bit as much a passive construction as "Two men are slain in carryout."

while noting that passive constructions are appropriate in various circumstances.

In an earlier note The Ridger (confronting the idea that "to be" = passive) replied to commenter M.C., saying that "it's nutty to assume using forms of "to be" is sloth."

A topic for another day: the idea that frequent words — like forms of BE and HAVE, the preposition of — should be avoided wherever possible. I suppose this is a muted version of "if they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all", which is regrettable advice in general. Repeal Zipf's Law!]

Now a few headlines from the 21 March 2009 issue of the New York Times (the first section of the National Edition). Page 1 has six articles that in principle could have omitted, though not with equal felicity (I'll cite the heads as single lines, without reproducing the line divisions in the Times):

Long-Delayed Bank Rescue Will Set Up a Public-Private Partnership

Sugar Is Back on Food Labels, This Time as a Selling Point

An Old and Faraway Dispute Goes Home with the Cleaning

A Nod Before Iran's Election

In the Game At 13

Plus a copula in:

Sugar Is Back on Food Labels … [above]

and the conjunction and in:

An Old and Faraway Dispute … [above]

Then there's an is in a progressive construction:

Adventure Travelers, Your Tour Bus Is Now Boarding for Basra

There are plenty more article and and examples (5 article examples just on p. A2), but now I'll restrict myself to forms of BE. A sampling:

Obama's Video Message to Iran Is Beginning of Diplomatic Push (A2)

Team U.S.A. Is Unlikely Undedog (A3)

Upset Was Just the Beginning (A3)

Obama's Positive Message to Iran Is an Opening Bid in a Diplomatic Drive (A4)

Canada: Antiwar Briton Is Barred (A5)

Puerto Rico Ex-Governor Is Aquitted Of Graft (A9)

Cuomo's A.I.G. Moment Is His Political Moment (A11)

Suspected Riverdale Archer Is New Neighbor with an Old Story (A13)

Where Boundaries Are Melting, a Place to Celebrate Differences (A14)

(Not all of these would be equally felicitous with the form of BE excised, though most would get by.)

Here we've got ordinary copulas (with NP complements, but elsewhere with AdjPs and PPs), BE in passives, and BE in progressives, in considerable profusion. I don't think this deviates a lot from journalistic practice these days, though I don't doubt that the frequencies have shifted over the years and vary from publication to publication, and from section to section within a publication. But the idea that all these examples would be better with the forms of BE excised is just ridiculous.


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