As I’ve said before, when a headline goes to hell in a speedboat, the Bat Signal tends to go out among those of us in the field of journalism.
The story in question involves John Schnatter, the founder of the Papa John’s pizza chain, who served on the Board of Trustees at the University of Louisville. Schnatter participated in a conference call with a public relations agency when he used a racial slur, thus setting off a chain of events that led to his resignation from the board and his company.
In the wake of these revelations, the university considered removing (and later did remove) his company’s name from the football stadium. During the period of consideration, the New York Times ran this headline, reminding all of us that even all-stars strike out occasionally:
In reading that headline as it is written, it sounds like the Cardinals will soon be playing at a stadium named after a racial slur. Something tells me that’s not what the Times meant, but it is what the paper’s staffers wrote.
We’ve picked on headlines before here, but this is probably a better chance to poke at grammar, as the headline suffers from some snafus in this area that can filter into all sorts of writing.
Let’s start with the idea of misplaced modifiers, which are words that inadvertently end up describing something they didn’t mean to describe. Consider the following sentence:
Mayor Tom Hicks said he planned to eradicate poverty on the steps of the court house on Monday.
The sentence makes it sound like the mayor has a pretty busy, but narrowly focused Monday: Eradicating poverty that exists on the steps of the court house.
What the sentence intended to say was that Hicks made an announcement Monday while he stood on the steps of the court house and the announcement pertained to his plan to eradicate poverty. There are a couple ways to fix this:
You want to get the modifiers as close as possible to the words you want them to modify. In this case, the misplaced ones are really far away from the word they intend to modify (said), so moving them closer can solve the problem:
Mayor Tom Hicks said Monday on the steps of the court house that he planned to eradicate poverty.
In this example, you solve the problem of the modifier, but you have a boring lead, in that the when and where are moved to the front of the lead, even though they are the least important elements of that lead.
This is where a second rewrite gets you closer, as you focus on the most important stuff first and then get into the nuts and bolts of the remaining W’s. The “theme lead” approach works better here:
Poverty will no longer plague Springfield after the implementation of the “Help NOW” plan, Mayor Tom Hicks said Monday on the steps of the court house.
This lead, while not an amazing bit of prose, focuses the lead on specifics of the “what” element and pushes the rest of the info lower in the sentence where it belongs.
For other examples of misplaced modifiers and ways to fix them, you can click here.
Another issues of note in the NYT headline is that of a word that has multiple meanings: after.
In some cases, it means subsequent to or (as journalists love to say “in the wake of”) an event:
Jimmy opened his presents after his mom served birthday cake.
(First, you eat the cake and then you can open your presents.)
In other cases, it means in allusion to, such as a namesake:
Jane and Bob named their child after Jane’s father, Francis.
(The kid is named Francis because Jane’s father was named Francis.)
Other definitions and uses exist, but the point is, the word leads to confusion due to its many accepted meanings. Had the authors used a more specific word or restructured the headline to eliminate the confusing usage, the problem would disappear. Here’s the original:
Louisville might rename Papa John’s Cardinal stadium after racial slur
Other headlines of similar length could include:
Schnatter’s use of racial slur has U of L considering stadium name change
Louisville might rename Papa John’s Cardinal stadium due to racial slur
Louisville considers stadium name change after namesake uses racial slur
None of these are perfect. I hate the use of “might” in headlines (or anywhere) as anything “might” happen. It’s just as easy to say “might not” in any “might” head. “Due to” is wonky terminology, although it avoids the “after” issue. The name in the first example has an issue because not everyone will know “Papa John” by his last name. The third one repeats versions of “name.”
Still, at least people will know the Cardinals won’t be playing at Slur Stadium in the fall.
Here are a couple other headlines that have similar snafus:
Mortgage owners get shot to save $1 million
Boy Scout helps blind women in Springfield
The first one was an actual headline in a national publication during the housing meltdown. The word “shot” was meant as “chance” here, although it sounded more like these people were taking a bullet to get some cash.
The second one is a variation on multiple bad headlines using a word that is both a descriptor (Sally is blind.) and word of action (The sun will blind you if you look directly at it.).
A good way to avoid the multiple-meaning words is to read your copy several times, emphasizing different words each time. It also helps when you have touchy subjects to read even more carefully to make sure you don’t inadvertently make things worse.