7 types of headline mistakes to avoid

Clever or compelling, the synopsis on a news or feature story must follow certain rules to impart the text’s overriding theme or key point(s). Too often, sloppiness kills this messenger.

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Throughout the history of journalism, headlines have evolved as a method for distilling the content of an article into a handful of words that will draw readers into the piece, and they serve that function for other types of informative content, such as newsletters and reports.

However, in publications that are not carefully edited, especially on post-it-right-now websites, headlines can invite the wrong kind of curiosity, combined with confusion or derision, when they’re published with errors.

This post examines various types of common mistakes:

1. Poor grammar

This subheadline, under a headline about cell phone antennas, starts with a dangling modifier: “Numbering Over 2,400 in City Alone, Neighborhoods Say ‘Enough Is Enough.'” (The sentence construction implies that the figure refers to the number of neighborhoods.) The subject should be repeated (preferably, with elegant variation), and the quote must be preceded by a comma: “Towers Number 2,400 in the City Alone, and Neighborhoods Say, ‘Enough Is Enough.'”

2. Awkward syntax

“Man Throws Woman Off Overpass, Then Self” isn’t wrong, and it could be argued that the suicide part of the murder/suicide is the key point, but the headline is clumsy and is better rendered “Man Throws Woman, Then Self, Off Overpass.” And the literal meaning of “Man Accused of Putting Bodies in Barrels in Court” is that the off-putting putting took place in the courtroom; this misplaced modifier is easily corrected: “Man Accused of Putting Bodies in Barrels Appears in Court.”

3. Incorrect usage

A common error is perpetrated in “Less Drinking-Related Problems Reported at College.” (The problems are quantifiable, so fewer is the correct word choice.) In “VW to end making bugs in Mexico,” capitalized in sentence style rather than headline style, the choice of the first verb is awkward (stop is better), and Bugs, though a nickname for a brand name, is still a name and should be capitalized.

4. Redundancy

Repetitive wording is rare in headlines, but when money is concerned, headline writers can become careless, as in “Get $100 Bucks for Recycling Old Computer Gear” and “$1.4 Million Dollars Later, No Progress.” (This type of error shows up in the articles themselves, too, as in “Taxpayers spent $1.4 billion dollars on everything from staffing, housing, flying, and entertaining President Obama and his family last year.”

There’s also a parallelism error in the list; the sentence should read something like, “Taxpayers spent $1.4 billion on everything from providing staffing for President Obama and his family last year to housing, flying, and entertaining them during that period.”)

5. Misspelling

Periodicals pride themselves on factual accuracy, but misspelling familiar names is unfortunately a common occurrence, as in “Jennifer Anniston Talks About Having Babies” (her last name is spelled Aniston) and “Smith Is the Michaelangelo of Real Estate” (the artist’s name is Michelangelo).

6. Incorrect punctuation

An article headlined “To Some Graffiti Is Art, Others Its Vandalism” not only omits a pair of commas and an apostrophe and flubs another punctuation mark but also leaves out a word; it should be “To Some, Graffiti Is Art; to Others, It’s Vandalism.” Another headline also lacks an apostrophe: “Officials Past Helps Him Plan the Future,” where officials is treated as a plural rather than in singular possessive form.

7. Erroneous use or lack of hyphenation

Gratuitous hyphenation, such as that in the headline “Soldier Guilty in Parachute-Tampering”—the hyphen is appropriate only if “parachute-tampering” is a phrasal adjective preceding a noun such as case—is annoying but innocuous, but the mangling of the age range in “Most 18-29 Year-Olds Sleep with Their Smartphones” (correction: “Most 18- to 29-Year-Olds Sleep with Their Smartphones”) is embarrassing.

Nor does erroneous omission of hyphens in standing phrases reflect the rigorous quality control that assures readers of a newspaper’s accuracy; “Cease Fire in Liberia” and “Debate Free for All” should read “Cease-Fire in Liberia” and “Debate Free-for-All.”

A version of this article first appeared on DailyWritingTips.

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