Monday, October 13, 2003

Woe, Dude

Beware when headline slang migrates south.

Words such as "woe," "probe" and "nab" all serve (or served) a purpose in headlines. They are shorter ways of saying something. "Woe" for "problem." "Probe" for "investigation." "Nab" for "Catch." When you have to shoehorn meaning into a tight line, short words come in handy.

The problem: These words turn silly quickly. They aren't the way people talk or (usually) write. "Nab" is the worst offender of the three mentioned. Thankfully, few use it. "Woe," "probe" and their more respectable brethren still make it into headlines now and then. Until designers start allocating space more freely, we make do with what we have.

Keep them out of the stories, though. Please. The reason they should be regarded with caution in headlines is the reason they should be avoided in stories. In stories, headline length requirements don't apply. We're not trying to summarize "Cryptonomicon" for a fortune cookie.

Studies show that newspaper readers skim the headlines first. If they don't go through the story, the headline is all they read. Let's say those headlines are full of "woes" and "probes." Those readers turn into reporters. And those reporters then bedevil copy editors with our own condensed slang. It's newspaper style, right? A vicious circle.

Break the circle, folks. Use the headline words sparingly in headlines. Keep them out of the stories.