It’s Headlinese to Me

big-rig

Since the 2016 presidential election, many of us have been devouring the latest news, keeping a close watch on unfolding events. How does an article get our attention? Through the headline, of course. A headline must be concise in conveying the gist of the news story or article that follows. But did you know that the compressed style of headlines, which often defies conventional grammar, adheres to certain rules and even has a fun name?

To write a headline that is not English at all but its own language, follow the syntactic conventions of “headlinese”:

  1. Don’t use articles (a/an, the). (“Woman Vandalizes Car for Six Hours”)
  2. Omit any form of the verb to be. (“ISIS Plots Discovered”)
  3. Replace the past tense with the simple present tense. (“Natalie Portman Slams Hollywood”)
  4. Indicate the future tense using the infinitive. (“Sheriff to Block Access to Dakota Campsite”)
  5. String nouns together flagrantly. (“College Football Bowl Projections”)
  6. Replace and with a comma. (“Wildfires Destroy Homes, Hotels”)
  7. Refer to people by last name only. (“Obama Offers Bleak Assessment of Situation in Syria”)
  8. Use contractions, abbreviations, shorthand, and short words. (“3 Dead in Calif. After Thanksgiving Charity Dinner”)

Speaking of short words, below is a sampling of petite verbs commonly used to save space in headlines. You may notice that these terms show up relatively infrequently in everyday language.

  • Curb: control, restrain, rein in, suppress
  • Dub: label, call, nickname, designate
  • Hail: cheer, acclaim, welcome, approve
  • Ink: sign one’s name to
  • Laud: praise, extol, glorify, commend
  • Mar: spoil, damage, ruin, impair
  • Nix: veto, reject, cancel, put an end to
  • Quiz: examine, test, question, interrogate
  • Vie: compete, fight, contend, strive
  • Vow: swear, promise, pledge, declare

The constraints of headlinese can lead to humorous uncertainties of meaning, some of them legendary:

  • “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim”
  • “Red Tape Holds up New Bridge”
  • “MacArthur Flies Back to Front”
  • “Iraqi Head Seeks Arms”
  • “Two Convicts Evade Noose, Jury Hung”
  • “Stolen Painting Found by Tree”
  • “Prostitutes Appeal to Pope”
  • “Dealers Will Hear Car Talk at Noon”
  • “Lack of Brains Hinders Research”
  • “NJ Judge to Rule on Nude Beach”

I wish I encountered such amusingly ambiguous headlines more often. It might make the news more palatable.

You Could Be a Shakespeare Expert and Not Know It

witches

Earlier this month, I saw a production of Macbeth. While 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, Shakespeare felt very current that night. The tragedy, about the destructive consequences of political greed, seemed well-timed in the midst of what may go down as one of the most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history. In addition, the play’s witches—the three “weird sisters”—served as a fitting prelude to Halloween.

Ultimately, however, the vitality of “The Scottish Play” came from its language—the beauty of it, but also its lasting impact. Sitting in row E, seat 1, I was awash in nonstop famous lines, along with everyday expressions we may not be aware were popularized by the Bard. I have seen multiple performances of Macbeth, however, and studied all the female characters’ lines for an audition—so I can’t be completely objective about how well-known the words are.

Still, I am prepared to pose a bold thesis: Macbeth has had such a great impact on society and language that an English speaker who hasn’t read it since high school (or ever!) will be able to recognize many quotations from it. To test this theory, I have created a fill-in quiz that should make even sufferers of metrophobia (the fear of poetry) feel pretty smart. (The answers appear at the end of this post.) The numbers after each quote refer to the corresponding act and scene from the play.

  1. lady-m“Double, double toil and _____.” (4.1)
  2. “Out, damned _____!” (5.1)
  3. “By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something _____ this way comes.” (4.1)
  4. “Things without all remedy / Should be without regard; what’s done is _____.” (3.2)
  5. “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell _____?” (4.3)
  6. “Eye of _____ and toe of frog.” (4.1)
  7. “That but this blow / Might be the be-all and the _____ here.” (1.7)
  8. “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and _____, / Signifying nothing.” (5.5)
  9. “Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’ the _____ of human kindness.” (1.5)
  10. “Is this a _____ which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?” (2.1)

Who but an expert in Shakespeare’s works could know 10 (not-so-random) quotes from Macbeth? Based on your number of correct responses, here is your ranking:

10 Shakespeare scholar
9 English teacher
8 Lit major
7 Theater aficionado
6 Honors student
5 CliffsNotes browser
4 Non-nerd
3 Not a fan
2 Hermit
1 Clodpole
0 Extraterrestrial

How didst thou fare? Please shareth thy results!

Answers: 1. trouble, 2. spot, 3. wicked, 4. done, 5. swoop, 6. newt, 7. end-all, 8. fury, 9. milk, 10. dagger.

Adventures in Copywriting

ruins

On this blog, I often talk about my experiences as a copyeditor. But I rarely discuss my work as a copywriter. I create written content for business Web sites, mostly in the hospitality arena. I also help with the naming of entities such as hotels and restaurants. These projects have taken me to Atlantic City; Manhattan; Miami; Dublin; Washington, DC; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and down the hill from my house in Santa Barbara. Most recently, I traveled to the Central American country of Belize, to be a guest at a client’s two resorts there.

jaguarOn the trip, my husband and I visited several sites of Maya ruins. To traverse one of them, we had to hike through the Guatemalan jungle, where we saw some exotic animals and insects. These included the fearless coatimundi, ratlike gibnut (which supposedly tastes like ham when smoked), and magnificent Morpho butterfly. We didn’t run into any jaguars, although the roads are dotted with signs warning of their crossing. My hubby did encounter a harmless green-headed tree snake at the coast; we don’t speak of it.

chivesThe copy for a hotel or resort Web site has to be factual, providing information about the rooms, amenities, dining venues, spa, event facilities, and neighborhood. In equal measure, it must evoke what it feels like to be there. Sipping a watermelon mojito at the bar, devouring chaya tamales in the restaurant, sleeping in the comfy king-sized bed, ordering room service for breakfast, rinsing off in the outdoor shower, lounging by the pool, touring the on-site organic garden, going on local excursions, taking a Maya cooking class, and enjoying the tiny pastries left during turndown service prepare one to convey the guest experience. (Sometimes, research doesn’t suck.)

But I don’t always have the opportunity to visit a property I am writing about. In such cases, I have to educate myself by doing some or all of the following:

  • Talking to people who have been there
  • Examining photographs of the property
  • Reviewing press releases and marketing materials from the client
  • Reading news and feature articles about the property
  • Studying guest reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Expedia, and similar sites

The final step: using my imagination! Then it’s up to the client to decide whether I have captured the essence of the place.

beach

Confessions of a Ghost Editor

ghost editorFor four weeks, I had to pretend to be someone else. I messed up once, signing my own name to an e-mail. I concocted an excuse for the mistake, and didn’t sign an e-mail after that.

The person who sends me most of my work was out of the country, without her computer. She didn’t want our projects to lag during her absence, so she asked me to deliver work via her account. I didn’t really mind.

I am a ghost editor. I am not anonymous, because I don’t exist—even namelessly. Rather, my work is presented as someone else’s. As I temporarily assumed this person’s identity, I couldn’t help but wonder: How important is it to get credit for what we do?

This question strikes me as one the ego would ask, as well as rush to answer. Naturally, the part of us concerned with accomplishing something demonstrable in the world desires to be openly acknowledged. Or at least not to have its being negated.

It’s not my business why someone would allow a client to think she did work she didn’t. What is my business is why I have remained contentedly in the shadows for so many years, not developing my own reputation—a name for myself, based on merit and achievement.

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Cassio laments the loss of his good name: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” I think I disagree.

Reputation is the estimation of others. But the “immortal part of us” is beyond estimation. So reputation must be associated with the “bestial” aspect of our nature—our body, acting upon the earth.

The immortal part of me doesn’t care about seeing its name in the acknowledgments.

Not that it has a name.

Um, I Invented Post-Its

romy and micheleLast night, I walked into an introvert’s nightmare: my 30-year high school reunion (class of you-do-the-math). I wasn’t totally unprepared. A selfless friend had taken me shopping for a cute top to wear with the black skinny pants I had ordered online. (I owe her dinner, though she deserves a medal—I’m a petulant shopper.) I exercised faithfully (two dog walks and a half-hour workout) every day for two weeks in order to fit comfortably into the aforementioned trousers.

The day before the reunion, I got a mani-pedi. As the 20-something manicurist performed a ticklish maneuver on my feet, she asked if a special occasion had prompted my visit to the salon. After I answered, she replied, “My mother recently went to her 30-year reunion!” Ouch. It dawned on me that I could easily have an adult child by now. Indeed, I would later find out that many of my former classmates have kids entering, or already attending, college.

At the reunion, I made another discovery: others (and not just the introverts) had also been apprehensive about attending. Why? Were we afraid that seeing our old cohorts might revive teenage insecurities? Did we feel pressure to show how little we had changed—or how much? Would there be a reckoning for issues that had lain unresolved for three decades? I joked with a friend (with whom I have remained in contact since high school) that we should have a signal if the event was not to our liking—exaggerated winking, pointing toward the exit, exclaiming with boredom. As it turned out, we didn’t need one.

I observed (as introverts do) that conversational groups would form and then shift, creating ever-changing combinations of individuals. I personally talked to about a dozen people. The toughest question for me was, “What do you do?” As discussed in a previous post, I don’t really like talking about my “flair.” I forgot my hair stylist’s advice to say I invented Post-Its (a la Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), but I think I did okay.

I’m glad I went. Two hours before I actually left, I started trying to leave, in anticipation of an hour-long drive home. But I kept getting absorbed in pleasant conversations with my erstwhile acquaintances. By the age of you-do-the-math, your high school days are a distant memory. Perhaps reuniting with the ones who were there confirms those times weren’t mythical—even brings you back to them.

They’re a fun place to visit.

Nerd Alert!

space

Last weekend, I “attended” a writing conference. I put “attended” in quotation marks because the event took place online, so there was nowhere literally to be present. I enjoyed this setup because I got to sit in my kitchen, near the snacks. And I didn’t have to be out among people, a bonus for an introvert.

Put on by Writer’s Digest University, the conference focused on science fiction and fantasy. Unless the sitcom The Big Bang Theory isn’t true to life, fans of these genres have the reputation of being, well, nerdy. So imagine how nerdy the writers must be! Delightfully so. Seven accomplished, award-winning authors presented webinars on various topics, such as worldbuilding, creating suspense, and crafting three-dimensional female characters. Let me tell you, these folks were legit. They didn’t just phone it in (unless the microphone on their computer wasn’t working).

Here are some tidbits, one from each session, that I found interesting, helpful, amusing, or surprising:

  1. Foreign language. Science fiction and fantasy do very well overseas, especially in Germany. Other big markets are France and Russia. In fact, the bulk of income from such works may come from outside the United States. (Michael J. Sullivan)
  2. Fictional universe. Worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy takes place at both the macro and micro levels. Macro relates to the external factors that affect societies and individuals; micro refers to the internal factors that make characters seem believable. On the micro level, one of the most important factors is power, which is the ability to affect or control others. (N. K. Jemisin)
  3. Structure. A mistake to avoid when writing a science fiction or fantasy novel is failing to hit the three major plot points hard enough, causing the story to drag. The first of these revelations (the “tent poles” of your story) occurs 25 percent of the way in, the second at 50 percent (the “midpoint”), and the third at 75 percent. (K.M. Weiland)
  4. Raising the stakes. One way to add suspense to science fiction or fantasy is through the villain. It is more effective for a villain to pose the threat of menace than to be omnipotent. Avoid the “evil overlord syndrome,” opting instead for “less is more”: let the reader wonder what the relentless villain is capable of doing. (Jeff Wheeler)
  5. hatThe past that never was. Steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction, reimagines modern technology as powered by steam, set against a 19th-century backdrop (such as Victorian England). The colorful essentials of steampunk include airships and steam locomotives, “brass works” (such as weapons and armor), goggles, corsets and waistcoats, and bowlers and pith helmets. (Tee Morris)
  6. Human women. In science fiction and fantasy, avoid female characters who are purely objects, exerting no influence in moving the story forward. Other things to avoid: having just one female character in your cast, and making your female characters suffer in order to motivate the males. (Pip Ballantine)
  7. Grabbing and holding. The opening scene of a science fiction or fantasy book should follow the “punch, push, explain” format: punch your reader in the face (first sentence), push him to the floor (first paragraph), and then explain why you did it (next few pages). (Philip Athans)

As for my own nerdiness, I believe that was confirmed when I spent the first weekend of summer indoors, learning about writing.

 

Proofing Your Own Writing

dental careAs a copyeditor, I receive manuscripts in various conditions. On occasion, I can tell that an author has gone back and read what he or she wrote, making some refinements. Such authors are like diligent dental patients, brushing and flossing before reclining in the hygienist’s chair—where torturous tools will be used to get those whites pearly. (I’m the ruthless dental hygienist in this scenario.) More often, I know I am in possession of a true first draft: the author has keyed the content and never looked at it again, perhaps assuming that a professional would follow behind, making the words shine. Such authors have done the equivalent of downing a bag of Cheetos in the dentist’s waiting room. But at least they’re in the right place to get the help they need.

Think of all the writing you do that isn’t reviewed by an editor—e-mails, letters, agendas, reports, blog posts, social media posts, etc. These communications reflect on you, and possibly your company, yet how carefully do you check them? Admittedly, seeing mistakes in your own writing can be difficult—and, while spell-check is a handy tool, it misses things. Comparing your compositions against this brief checklist can save you from a good number of linguistic missteps:

  1. Read what you have written. Make sure you have conveyed your points clearly and succinctly.
  2. Eliminate erroneous capitalization. Generally speaking, capitals are used for the first word after a period and for proper nouns. If you aren’t sure whether a word is a proper noun, consult Merriam-Webster. Here’s a cheat sheet of items that should be lowercase, unless they contain a proper noun: animals, foods, medical conditions, seasons, compass points, and general academic subjects. Capital letters are not used for emphasis. See my earlier post for additional capitalization errors.
  3. Ensure the proper use of tricky homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. You know the ones I mean: your and you’re; their, there, and they’re; to, too, and two. I think it’s easy for your fingers, poised on the keyboard, to “hear” the wrong word as they take dictation from your brain. Here are some additional examples to watch out for: cite, sight, and site; for, fore, and four; rain, reign, and rein; palate, palette, and pallet; peak, peek, and pique; and right, rite, wright, and write.
  4. Delete apostrophes in plurals. Most nouns form their plural by adding or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding es. I know of only one case in which the plural of a noun is formed by adding an apostrophe before the s: for single lowercase letters. For example: “There are two c’s in cupcake.” See my earlier post for more on the subject.
  5. Change two spaces between sentences to a single space. Double-spacing between sentences suggests that you came of age in the era of the manual typewriter. Breaking this lifelong habit can be hard, especially as the life has been so long.

There’s one more thing, and I would consider it a personal favor: in your e-mails, after “Hi,” always use a comma to set off the recipient’s name (for example, “Hi, Thomas.”).

The use of commas to set off nouns of direct address is a sign of a truly refined character.