Vagueness is in

26 Sep

Just last week we were praising – or at least reluctantly admiring – “amid” for its compactness, usefulness and, in the right hands, suggestiveness. In the old days of hot metal and headline counts (as far as I understand these ancient things), A-M-I-D would score 1-1.5-0.5-1, for a skimpy total of 4. But every en counts in headlines, and what do you do when there isn’t space for the preposition that says nothing but implies everything? You use an even shorter one: “in”. Total score: 1.5. Capacity to incriminate without distressing the lawyer: almost boundless.

Just like “amid”, it’s superbly vague, annoyingly useful and almost impossible to disallow. In fact, it’s better: whereas “amid” can only serve as a preposition, “in” can function as the hinge of the whole headline, a kind of not-verb that gestures at lurid possibilities without ever embarrassing you in front of the judge. POP STAR IN SEX TEXTS SCANDAL. MP IN NEW CASH-FOR-ACCESS INQUIRY. It works particularly well for crime stories: everyone in some way connected to the illegal acts of others, everyone questioned even in passing by the police, can legitimately be said to be “in” a scandal, even if they are completely innocent. The minute you start using verbs, the possibilities for legal trouble multiply. Prepositions and conjunctions mean never having to say you’re sorry.

Millicent Griffith, the fictional surgeon-general in The West Wing, gets herself in trouble in one episode for saying something controversial about the relative dangers of marijuana and alcohol on a phone-in. She’s hauled before Leo, the chief of staff, to explain herself.  “Six different committee chairs – three in the House, three in the Senate – are all talking about hearings,” Leo complains. “What are they going to find?” Millicent protests. “They don’t need to find anything,” says Leo wearily. “They just need to say your name and ‘drugs’ as many times as possible on television.”

That’s how it works. No verb: just “and”. Present the nouns, and the audience will connect them up for themselves; you don’t have to get your hands dirty.

And avoiding verbs can become  a habit even when you don’t really need to: in this full-width slice of the New York Post’s website, there are two understood verbs and two possessive constructions, but no actual visible verbs, and none of them are particularly tricky stories.

Picture 36

Not that I object to strong headlines: quite the opposite. Like all subs, when I’m working on a story, I’m wondering how much I can say in the display type, not how little. Journalism is a lot like working in public sanitation: you drag dirt out into the light so that it can be processed and cleaned up. We shouldn’t fight shy of making substantiated accusations, and we shouldn’t be afraid of calling things as they are. But deliberate vagueness isn’t calling things as they are; it’s gesturing towards something we don’t know and can’t prove. Every journalist will tell you that we don’t owe the newsworthy special treatment. But I think we at least owe them a verb.

One Response to “Vagueness is in”


  1. The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline | Ten minutes past deadline - March 21, 2017

    […] in the courts, but dilute its impact on the page. As previously discussed, you could always replace the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for […]

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