off the cuff

To headline writers: May their tribe continue

Whenever they are listening to an incident, their minds are at work encapsulating, extracting its core, condensing it to no more than a few words

Kevin MartinSpecial to Gulf News
14:07 October 13, 2016

I have a lament to kick off the column this week: the Tightly observant headline is dying, methinks.

There used to be a time when the papers were full of them. People bought the papers for the headlines and then accepted the bonus of a decently-written article. The Evening Standard’s ‘The First Footstep’ (July 21, 1969), when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, is one of my all-time favourites, crisp and concise.

‘Headless body found in topless bar’ is another. Written by the late Vincent Musetto in the New York Post in 1983, it turned him into a legend.

Headline writers, I’m told, think differently. Whenever they are listening to an incident, their minds are at work encapsulating, extracting its core, condensing it to no more than a few words.

In that regard, it is interesting to note the acute brevity headline writers accord to death in general, celebrity deaths in particular: ‘Elvis Dead’, ‘Diana Dead’, ‘Lennon Slain’, ‘Kennedy Assassinated’. Death, being sudden and swift, it makes sense to state the obvious in two simple words. Additionally, the shorter the headline the greater the focus, the greater the shock.

The pun, we know, has suffered a sense of inferiority in the halls of comedy. It has been deemed lowly and stand-ups, reluctant to venture near, generally leave punning alone. A lot of newspapers, however, embrace the pun wholeheartedly. In 1994, when Russian goalkeeper Dmitri Kharine saved a penalty, British tabloids screamed, ‘From Russia with gloves’. ‘How do you solve a problem like Korea?’ was penned for an article on the ramifications of a North Korean nuclear test in 2004. One of the most well-known, however, was a 2003 headline in the Sun on the occasion of Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club’s (also known as Caley Thistle) 3-1 victory over the more fancied Celtic. It went, ‘Super Caley go ballistic Celtic are atrocious’.

Along with the pun, the double entendre has enjoyed a fair share of headline patronage, as the following examples will testify: ‘Child’s stool great for use in garden’; ‘Reagan wins on budget but more lies ahead’; ‘Iraqi head seeks arms’; ‘Two convicts evade noose, jury hung’. Sometimes, however, the headline writer can get things twisted, or even wrong. It’s when a proof reader/copy editor’s eyes become relevant on the page. I mean, what’s going on with the following headlines? ‘Juvenile court to try shooting defendant’. It’s only after a second closer read one discovers that ‘shooting’ is the adjective, not the verb thankfully! And what about this: ‘Miners refuse to work after death’? And then, this: ‘Man kills self before shooting wife and daughter’. How did he manage that, I wonder?

Only a few years ago, I came across an article in the Guardian titled, ‘Excuse me, but I think your modifier is dangling’. The word modifier, of course, took me back to grade school and grammar class. It revived memories of participles and participle phrases. A dangling modifier, in short, being a word phrase that doesn’t actually modify the word it’s meant to modify. A quick search for an example online revealed this: ‘After reading the great new book, the movie based on it is sure to be exciting.’ As we can see, it seems here as though the movie read the great book. In other words, the phrase ‘after reading ...’ is latching on to the word ‘movie’ and incorrectly modifying it. If, however, it was rewritten as, ‘After reading the great book, John thought the movie based on it was sure to be exciting’, we now have a proper subject and the modifier is no longer left dangling. In parting, here’s a dangler from the past that’s never failed to bring me out in a smile: ‘I met a man with a wooden leg named Joe’. Ah well, here’s to that rare breed of headline writers everywhere.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.