Drop catch

7 Aug

Er … how’s that?

If you’re baffled by the headline, and perhaps reading “take drops” together, as I was, here’s some background. Earlier this summer, in the deciding match of the one-day cricket series between England and India, England captain Joe Root hit the winning runs, scoring a century as he did so, and then performed what appeared to be a rapper’s “mic drop” – the showy discarding of a microphone, with an air of finality, at the end of a show – with his bat.

Then, last week, in the first of the five-day Test matches between the two countries, Kohli ran out Root with a direct hit when Root was unwisely attempting a second run. Kohli then celebrated in a similar manner, only with an imaginary microphone, because he didn’t have a bat.

The TV cameras didn’t really pick it up, but more than one press photographer did, and the picture duly found its way onto several sports sections the next day, including the Guardian’s, with an “ooh, controversy!” angle to the copy, even though the players seemed very happy to play down the whole thing.

But if you’re going to make mic drops the back-page story, you need to be sure that your audience understand what they are. Readers of the culture section might well be familiar with a gesture that was popularised in rap battles and comedy clubs, but this is a headline for followers of the most traditional form of Britain’s most traditional game: the sport whose VIP spectators wait to be given permission to take their blazers off in 95-degree heat. If the first time they encounter a pop-culture term is broken up in the middle of a complicated headline, the learning (and comprehension) curve is going to be almost vertical.

If you do know what a mic drop is, it’s hard enough, because your eye jumps straight to “drops” after “mic” and ignores “take”; at first I thought they had left an entire rogue verb in the headline. It took me about 45 seconds to realise that (I think) you’re supposed to read “mic(k) take”, as in mickey-take. Of course, that would rely on you pronouncing “mic” phonetically and not as “mike”: but no one refers to them as “mick drops”. Moreover,  “drop” has become semantically detached from its noun phrase because it is now functioning both as the main verb of the sentence and as part of another idiom (to “drop <someone> in it”, ie to cause them trouble).

As a commentator might say about a big inswinger that misses all three stumps, this headline is “doing a bit too much”.  If “mic drop” needs quotes round it in your tweet, then it needs to be treated slightly more gently the first time it appears in print. (And let’s not even get into whether, for precisely this sort of reason, the abbreviation should be “mic” or “mike”).




24 Jul

Quick, over to the online picture library to get the news angle on this photo:

An undated handout picture


made available by the press service


of the civic chamber of the Russian Federation


on chamber’s official website


shows the ‘Right To Bear Weapons’ Public Organisation’s Board Chairman Maria Butina

the … what? Right

attending a rally to demand expansion of citizens’ rights


in a Russian city


In Russia.

Got it.

Maria Butina, 29, was arrested in the United States on suspicion of being engaged in conspiracy against the US and acting as an unregistered Russian agent.

Ah! I thought she looked familiar.

If copy-editors seem impatient for a piece of text to get to the point, there’s a reason. Although all journalists wrestle with the problem of time – the deadline – subs are the only ones who have to confront the problem of space. Everyone understands, of course, that there are only a set number of pages per day, but, from the reporter who’s been told “aim for 900” to the designer who’s been promised “the pictures will look good big”, that awareness is theoretical. It’s only when the reporter has filed 975 words and the designer likes the pictures so much that she’s shaved the length down to 850 that the problem becomes concrete: at which point the copy desk is left to sort it out.

Captions on a single-column picture may only be three or four words long: as short as the shortest headlines. And although all the information – source, provenance, location, copyright – included in a photo agency’s filing is important for the newsroom and needs to be recorded, there’s never space to include it.

Or at least, there isn’t in print. There’s no pressure on space on the web, though, which means some news websites – such as USA Today – can pipe the whole lot through automatically for customers to read every last word. This blog has previously worried about the fact that captions have a shorter route to publication than any other part of a newspaper, but nothing’s quite as direct as this:

You would think that, if you’re going to lead off with the provider of the photo rather than the subject of it, you could skip having to write a full photo credit too. But at least someone took out “in a Russian city in Russia”.

The first sub-editors ever to appear in song

10 Jul

Clinic: IPC Sub-editors Dictate Our Youth (Domino Records, 1997)


This is what youth sounds like: rebellion against corporate media, cultural authority, metropolitan savants … and the people who check their spelling.

There are, as we know, a couple of sub-editors in films, but who ever thought any would feature in a pop song? And not just any sub-editors, but the copy desk at IPC – the fallen British magazine titan that used to own Melody Maker and New Musical Express when they were both at the height of their powers.

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, these were the papers in which famous writers were blooded and famous faces promoted; where punk and the New Romantics took flight and Blur fought Oasis for supremacy. You can see why a spiky young provincial band might rebel at so much glamour and hauteur being projected at them from London. But what’s so enchanting is the thought that it was the sub-editors – not Robert Elms, not Julie Burchill, not Chrissie Hynde – who were actually making this happen: making and breaking acts, gatekeeping impassively in Ray-Bans while the pop stars came and went.

It’s not as though MM or NME were particularly subs’ papers: alongside the epoch-making rock portraiture on the covers, the headlines tended to be very factual (WAKEMAN REJOINS YES) or straight quotes from the stars (“MUMFORD AND SONS: ‘OUR NEW SOUND WILL FREAK PEOPLE OUT!’). I think we all suspect that the truth was different: that in fact subs on music papers are rumpled figures, somewhat older than their colleagues, going round saying things like “You haven’t filled in the name of the band here … What? Oh, they’re called the xx?”

It’s not a very high-profile song – this blog was only put on to it by colleague Iain in the newsroom. And disappointingly, insofar as anyone can make them out, the lyrics appear to have nothing to do with journalism, but sound like a bleak portrayal of family strife, perhaps inspired by life in Clinic’s native Liverpool in the 1990s.

But still, we made it into the title. And it’s inspiring to think that an indie band once thought we were cool and aloof enough to put in a song.

You look marvellous

26 Jun

What’s she marvelling at? I’m sure Comic-Con crowds are a sight to behold, and Bettany’s sunglasses look impressively retro in the photographs. But I don’t think that’s what the Daily Mail means here. I think there’s something more ambitious going on.

“Marvel”, the verb, is frequently followed by “at”,  and there is an “at” in this headline. But it’s not right up against the verb, where you would expect it. The preposition that immediately follows the verb  is “in”, introducing a phrase that relates to the dress. So Elizabeth Olsen, I think, is not supposed to be “marvelling … at” the venue or her colleague, or indeed anything else. She’s “marvelling” in a way that celebrities featured in the Mail have previously been known to “stun”, “wow”, “dazzle”, “electrify”, “shimmer” and “amaze”.  She’s looking marvellous.

This type of construction is familiar to tabloid readers: most of the time, they seem to be what you might call “implied object” headlines, since the star in question is usually stunning, wowing or electrifying somebody else  – fans, media, the crowd – not explicitly mentioned. Such headlines reek of journalese, but are easily understood if the verbs are transitive (“electrify”, “amaze”) and clearly propose the idea of a second party. They also work with what are sometimes called “unaccusative” verbs, like “shimmer”, that describe an involuntary state of the subject.

But “marvel” is the kind of intransitive verb that usually demands either an indirect object (“they marvelled at the moon”) or an entire clause as a direct object (“they marvelled to see the moon“). It can stand on its own (“They marvelled.”), but in a sentence containing unrelated prepositional phrases, the risk of misunderstanding is high.

Obviously, as a sub-editor, I find Marvel Comics puns as hard to pass over as anyone else. But I don’t think Grammar Hulk’s going to like this one.

Netflix elliptical

12 Jun

A few words. A glimpse into the heart of conflict. But there’s no space here for specifics.

And that’s the trouble when you’re browsing through Netflix. The way the screen is laid out, there’s only the briefest space to grab your attention when you happen across an interesting film/TV series/documentary. In about 20 words, it’s got to try to engage you, so the summaries are strong on emotion: anger, vengeance, honour, fear, justice, family, love. But they do tend to be a bit vague.

You notice this particularly if you read them shorn of their accompanying title and image. Take this one, for example

It’s so non-specific as to be almost featureless. Could it be The Tempest? Yes. The Count of Monte Cristo? Easily. (In fact, it’s Deadpool.) Similarly, this description of tough action thriller Close Range

could serve quite well as a plot summary for The Code of the Woosters.

If you’re a journalist who has to get your headline through an audience team before it can go up on the web, you see immediately what’s missing here: keywords. What the homepage links need is some SEO. And that’s what they get, eventually, on the more detailed summary page you get if you follow the link. So, none the wiser as to what Close Range might be about, but eager to find out, you click to discover a second sentence, only slightly longer, containing everything to put you in the picture:

Ex-soldier/kidnapped niece/crooked sheriff/drug cartel. Got it. And that’s only 24 words (admittedly with two compounds) compared to the first summary’s 19.

Similarly, this

becomes a lot clearer when some detail is added,

not least the key information that it’s a kidnapping/imprisonment drama set in Thailand.

The more you look, the more you start to think that journalism skills are slightly more transferable to other spheres than is often  believed. It wouldn’t be difficult, for a sub trained to spot a news angle and move it to the top of the article, to fix these. I wonder if Netflix would ever employ any editors? Facebook does, sort of, although not for this.

A man with a remote. The glimmer of an idea. This time, anything could happen.

The 18th type of headline

29 May

One edition of the New York Post, two page leads that give pause for thought for anyone who, a week earlier, might have ambitiously been attempting to compile a taxonomy of headlines:

The back-page headline is of a recognisable type: the question is, which type? The Post is understandably jubilant about the Mets’ series triumph over the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that doesn’t fully explain what it means by SWEEP SNAKES. As the team that lost all three games on their visit to New York, it wasn’t the Snakes that were doing the sweeping, as the headline implies: the Snakes were the ones being swept.

So this could be one of two things. It could just be another unparseable tabloid pun (headline type 12): aspects of the story jammed together to create a homophonous phrase without too much attention paid to syntax. But the presence of a verb and an object along with the obvious absence of the subject, especially in an American publication, also entices one to think that it might be a flying verb (headline type 14): that the intended sentence is in fact METS SWEEP SNAKES.

In the UK, the Sun also comes up with headlines very like this – ones that make more grammatical sense if you assume the subject is implied – but there’s no tradition of flying-verb constructions in Britain and the assumption in those cases has to be just that sense has been sacrificed in the pursuit of the joke.

That would certainly seem to be the case on the Post’s front page headline too, at least for the part in big type: there is not much actual grammatical sense to be found in the phrase WEED MY LIPS. But the preamble above, “De Blasio to NYPD”, recalls a famous American headline from days gone by, still regularly reproduced today, that is harder to categorise:

The original appeared in New York in 1975, when President Ford made a speech declining to approve federal assistance to the near-bankrupt city authorities, to the fury of the Daily News. As the New York Times remembers, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD was originally notorious for its perceived lack of fairness – was it really accurate to summarise the president’s words in such a belligerent way? Ford himself blamed it for his losing New York, and by extension the presidency, to Jimmy Carter in the following year’s election, even though by that stage he had relented and loaned the city money. But as a form, its rhetorical efficiency is so obvious that it has outlived its controversial origins and become a reliable construction in its own right.

It’s not quite a voice-of-the-author (headline type 5) because it attempts to speak in the voice of the protagonist, rather than the writer. And it’s not quite an annotated quote (headline type 4) because the intent is clearly to editorialise the message rather than simply reproduce it. It therefore qualifies, I think, as an 18th type of headline, and the list will be updated accordingly. (A scant two weeks after being published. Still, I did say it was hubristic).

The 17* types of headline (*actually 18)

29 May

A bit hubristic to think this is all of them (and there are some hybrid forms), but here goes with a first attempt at a taxonomy:*

UPDATE, 29 MAY 2018: An 18th category of headline has been added: The voice of the protagonist (editorialised).


1) The simple declarative sentence

The first option to consider for straight news stories. Works at its best when the story is so good as to not require embellishment: NIXON QUITS, MEN WALK ON MOON, WHALE SWIMS PAST COMMONS. Can be used quite effectively to express opinion as well as facts (eg for leading articles). Doesn’t work for features, where it is important to signal the elevated quality of the writing in the headline, or interviews, where it’s much more interesting to hear the interviewee’s words verbatim. Exists in reversed form at the New York Times, with the prepositional phrase positioned at the start (“In Lower Saxony, An Artisan In Cheese Evokes Fond Memories”).


2) The existential emotion

Actually also a declarative sentence, but one that omits an understood existential clause (“There is”, “There are”, “There will be”) at the beginning in order to start with the exciting bit: anger, shock, horror, etc. Distinctively British.


3) The killer quote

Just the quote on its own, with no attribution or explanation. Effective when an opportunity to use it presents itself, which it rarely does, because without any annotation the quote will have to be both eye-catching and completely self-explanatory (at least for the web), which few ever are. (Even this one, from the BBC, inserts the word ‘also’).


4) The annotated killer quote

Ideal for interviews, vox pops and eyewitness stories: just find the most pithy phrase the subject says, and fill in the background afterwards. However, like the popular shopping-list and zingy-kicker headlines (see below), it usually requires a colon, which can mean the paper filling up quickly with kicker-style heds.


5) The voice of the author

A less demanding, paraphrased form of the killer quote, where the headline is written in the interviewee’s (or sometimes columnist’s) voice without actually being verbatim. Frequently begins with “My …”.


6) The then-and-now

The best way to approach large measures: however big your headline box is, this technique will fill it. Also works well for standfirsts. All the material you need is there in the body text, which is hundreds of words long: all you have to do is insert as much of the backstory as you need to take up the space, then follow it up with the news item in the first paragraph of the copy. Not useful for one-column NIB headlines.


7) The brusque rebuttal (aka the ‘No, the Earth isn’t flat’)

By far the most effective rebuttal headline, and the exception that proves the rule, observed in some newsrooms, that headlines should never begin with the words “No” or “Don’t”. Works because it begins with the denial, whereas any other contentious form has to begin with the subject of the dispute (“The Numbers On Toaster Dials Don’t … “) or a more abstract construction “(Why It Is Not True That ….”), which dissipates the impact. A relatively new form: perhaps that’s because it’s particularly effective when rebroadcast on Twitter, where directness is the standard mode of address.


8) The head-scratching question

A world full of questions also tends to generate journalism full of questions. Not exactly a recommended style, but often the only kind of headline you can write on pieces that fail to come to any solid conclusion. Usage per edition should be carefully rationed.


9) The insinuating question

Is this the most insidious headline form in Britain? As unscrupulous back benches know, a question headline means rarely having to say you’re sorry in the libel courts. Entirely different from the head-scratching question, because it knows precisely what it wants you to think. Ethically dubious.


10) The question-and-answer

The most respectable form of question headline, it at least has the courage to come a conclusion on its own. Good for comment and analysis pieces, as it gives the impression of a position being taken only after due consideration of the issues. Too indecisive-sounding for editorials, where the tone of certainty must be absolute.


11) The single-word shocker

GOTCHA! HORROR! WINNERS! OUTRAGE! Usually only for special occasions, or occasions you wish to imply are special.


12) The unparseable pun

An exclusively tabloid creation, often comprised of a well-known phrase, apposite to the story, with one word changed to reflect another aspect of the story. You can see the relevance of the first part; you can see the joke in the second part. But you can’t actually extract any sense out of the resulting sentence when you put the two together. A separate category from the standard tabloid pun headline, which is often a readily comprehensible sentence with homophone substitutions.


13) The zingy kicker

A joke, sometimes even an unparseable pun, but with an explanation afterwards to help you understand it. Another tempting headline form that requires a colon.


14) The flying verb

Omits the subject of the sentence (creating an “implied subject”) and starts with a verb. Almost exclusively American. Often baffling. Now very rare.


15) The columnist’s imperative

Voice of cold command, using the imperative mood, from the most authoritative figures in the land, viz one’s own opinion writers. Achieves its apotheosis in the form of the “open letter” (“DEAR PRINCE HARRY, don’t assume …”).


16) The how/why

Seductive and explanatory (and perilously easy to overuse). Gives the impression of an organisation with a high level of expertise and a mission to enlighten. Often a marker of the more highbrow publication. (The tabloid headline: I SLEPT WITH 1,000 WOMEN. The broadsheet headline: WHY I SLEPT WITH 1,000 WOMEN.)


17) The shopping list

Useful for nervous sub-editors confronted by legally complex stories with many moving parts. Also good if neither you or (you fear) the reporter fully understands the relationships between all the players in the drama, because it entirely dispenses with verbs; as we have previously discussed, verbs can get you sued.


18) The voice of the protagonist (editorialised)

28veto_lg (1)

Compact and effective quote-style headline in which the subject of the story’s words are pithily summarised, sometimes to his or her disadvantage. Far more editorialised than other quotation heds. Have caused controversy.


*I’ve attempted to classify headlines by rhetorical form rather than tone: most of these headline types can equally be funny or serious, punning or straight, while retaining the same essential structure