Tag Archives: New York Times

Semi articulated

30 May

Kurt Vonnegut rejected them; the Tribune’s sports section used to ban them; George Orwell thought they were unnecessary. But the New York Times likes semicolons so much that it even uses them in headlines.

Or at least it does when it is making one of its distinctive attempts to write three or four headlines above the same story, like this:

This style only ever appears on the biggest stories, where almost every paragraph of the text is worth a headline, but it’s still an impressively literate thing to see in 60-point capitals when there is so much antipathy towards semicolons in some quarters. Vonnegut famously called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”; Orwell thought they were “an unnecessary stop” and wrote a novel without them to prove it; the Tribune’s esteemed former sports editor, The Gaffer, insisted that they could all be replaced with full stops or commas, according to context.

And that is true, to a certain extent: if you adopt the “safety rule” with semicolons, which is to ensure that both the clauses on either side of it are independent – as a rule of thumb, that both are complete sentences in their own right* – then they can be replaced by a period in all cases. Except that then you lose the nuance that the New York Times headlines exemplify so well: the signal the semicolon sends that a second thought connected to the first one is about to follow. If you had four sentences ending in full stops, any one of them might mark the end of the discussion; the semicolon indicates that the subject remains open. It creates an expectation of more, in a similar way as the colon, in Fowler’s words, “delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words”.

By way of total contrast, here is one of the New York Times’s other ambitious headline innovations: the split-splash front page:

Here again there is more than one headline at the top of the page, but this time there’s no relation between them at all: they are about two completely different stories that the paper is giving joint top billing. In the unusual visual grammar of NYT layout, the lead story usually runs in the sixth column**: so the top headline, ranged left, relates to the story on the right of the page, and the bottom headline, ranged right, relates to the five columns to the left. Both the headlines are set in the same type at the same size, so it will take a lot more than mere punctuation to separate them; you might argue that even the long horizontal rule between the headlines is barely doing enough. At any event, it’s hardly the place for a semicolon.


*At first sight, this would appear not to be the case in two of the pictured examples, “Flies 1,000 miles…” and “Collect rocks…”, which appear to be awkward dependent clauses without subjects. But I suspect – given their vintage and the fact that they follow a subject introduced in the first headline – that they are both examples of the glorious flying verb.

** Confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by this behind-the-scenes piece about a hasty front-page redesign.

Where’s the splash?

29 Mar


Back in New York last week, just in time to see spring: sunlight illuminating wide, peaceful Broadway on the Upper West Side, blossom bobbing in the cold wind outside 72nd Street station. Like any Manhattan visitor, I did the Manhattan things one does: walking the High Line, going to a Broadway show, spending five solid minutes looking at the map trying to work out which F trains stop at Second Avenue.* And, of course, I read the New York Times.

As a broadsheet journalist, I understand the value of restraint, of course. And nuance, and the plurality of agendas that need to be reflected on a mature front page. But as I read (and, annoyingly, mislaid) an edition last week that was laid out just like the one pictured above, I still found myself wondering: which story’s the splash?

Instinctively I look first to the top left of a front page, to the first column, where there is indeed a story: the Bloomberg one. Is that the lead? The famously distinctive typography offers few clues: but the headline for the four column pic story appears to be in almost exactly the same bold italic. Over on the right, though, in column 6, the headline is in semi-bold caps. Does that outrank bold ital? There’s a subhead and a standfirst too: on sheer weight of furniture, it’s probably Saudis that’s the splash, way over on the right. But it took a while to find it.

The similarity of headline styles above the fold is one of the most striking things about the NYT to British eyes. It’s not that they’re small; it’s that they seem almost all the same size. By comparison, the template for a big double-page spread at the Tribune envisages a fully 40-point gap between the main headline on the page (66pt bold serif display) and the second and subsequent ones (26pt sans regular).

In fact, if you look at another striking Times layout, with the lead story in column 6 and the second story in column 5,


you can see that there is a difference in size between the caps and the bold italics, but it’s hard to detect if they’re not right next to each other. (Also, below the pic, there is a regular, unemphasised upper-and-lower headline that appears to be slightly larger than the bold italic headline next to it. Does that make it more or less important?)

Just add to the confusion, here’s another layout from January with two all-caps headlines, one on the right, one under the picture.


Again, the extra trimmings suggest the column 6 story is the splash, but it’s hardly what you’d call over-displayed. In fact, in all three examples, the paper is in effect being led by the photograph – especially the second one, which grandly takes up the first four columns on the page, displacing every headline down or to the right.

Typography in British newspapers is designed around the mystique of the splash: the one big story, with one big headline, delivered per day, with a supporting cast of other items as decoration. It makes every front page lively: everything looks good in 72-point bold. But the headline type doesn’t get smaller on a slow news day, so ordinary stories can end up getting a fanfare they can’t quite live up to. British news typography works on a relative scale: forget yesterday or the moon landings – this is what’s big today.

By contrast, the standard Times layouts functions at their best on slow news days: days where there are two lead stories, or, frankly, none. The single-column headlines over single-column stories communicate a judicious calm – a longer view – and a certain sense of honesty about the day’s events: an impression that many things are happening, and many things are news. So if you’re looking at a copy of the Times and wondering what the big story is, you can often find yourself agreeing with the paper: perhaps there isn’t one today.


* My provisional conclusion: they all do. In fact, I think, stopping at Second Avenue may be one of the defining characteristics of the F train, distinguishing it from the constellation of alphabetic alternatives (B, D, M etc) that share the line on their way to two different termini in Brooklyn, two in Queen’s and one in the Bronx via six different routes through Manhattan. I think.