Author Topic: The craft of writing headlines and titles - 1  (Read 12436 times)

Joe Carillo

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The craft of writing headlines and titles - 1
« on: July 10, 2019, 10:59:08 PM »

IMAGE CREDIT: EVENTBRITE.COM

Two weeks ago, Forum member Justine Aragones posted this perplexing grammar question on my Facebook Messenger: “May I just ask if there is really no need to put the conjunction ‘while’ in this news headline from the CNN Philippines website: ‘Lightning kills two men playing mobile games on a mountain’?”

Right off I replied that there was no need for “while” in that headline because it’s clear it wasn’t the mountain but the two men who were playing when lightning struck. I clearly had in mind that by using “while” as conjunction, that headline would read this way, “Lightning kills two men while playing mobile games on a mountain,” conveying the preposterous sense that it was the lightning that was playing mobile games. (Adding “they were” after “while” yields the correct sense: “Lightning kills two men while they were playing mobile games on a mountain,”)

In my reply, I presumed that the headline was crafted from a complex sentence in the news story like, say, “Lightning kills two men who were playing mobile games on a mountain.” Here, the main clause “lightning kills two men” is followed by the relative clause “who were playing mobile games on a mountain,” with “two men” as the direct object of the first clause.

When I replied to Justine, I hadn’t noticed yet that atop his question, he had posted a blurry image of the online story carrying this lead sentence: “Two men died after being struck by lightning while playing online mobile games on a mountain in Camarines Norte Saturday afternoon.” (There was also a fuzzy photo of the remains of the lightning bolt victims.)


In that lead sentence, we can clearly see what triggered Justine’s doubt about the headline, a doubt strong enough for him to bother bringing it to my attention: the lead sentence of the story itself was grammatically flawed. It had the incorrect sense that the two fatalities were struck by lightning while it was “playing online mobile games on a mountain in Camarines Norte Saturday afternoon.”

That sense obviously violates the natural order of things, so I’m quite sure it was what impelled Justine to immediately post this follow-up question: “Do you have any suggestion on how it [use of ‘while’] can make that headline more appealing and catchy if it is necessary?”

This column’s admittedly long overview—not too long for comfort, I hope—brings me to my promise to Justine to discuss the matter more fully, focusing on avoiding such grammatical pitfalls in the craft of making appealing and catchy headlines.

I’ll begin with the grammar of news headlines, keeping in mind that the crucial task of a headline is to get the reader attracted and engaged in the story that’s being presented.

For a straight news story like that CNN Philippines report, a straight news headline is needed, one using a strong action verb and the so-called “historical present” to convey a sense of immediacy. It preferably must be in the active voice and, to create a “telegraphic effect,” needs to drop articles (“a,” “an,” “the”) and nonessential words.

As I earlier pointed out, the problem with that CNN Philippines news story was the grammatically flawed lead sentence itself: “Two men died after being struck by lightning while playing online mobile games on a mountain in Camarines Norte Saturday afternoon.” The culprit is clearly the conjunction “while.”

This problem can be easily fixed though by using the active voice for the lead sentence and by replacing “while” with “who were”: “Lightning kills two men who were playing mobile games on a mountain.” It then becomes a simple matter to knock off the relative phrase “who were” and the place and time of occurrence (the CNN headline writer, to his credit, correctly did this):

“Lightning kills two men playing
mobile games on a mountain”


Of course, we can further streamline it by making it totally article-free:

“Two men playing mobile games
on mountain killed by lightning”


(Next: The craft of writing headlines and titles - 2)       July 18, 2019

This essay, 1,152nd of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the July 11, 2019 print edition of The Manila Times, © 2019 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.