By Kathleen Watson
Headlines provide never-ending examples of incorrect grammar, whether in word choice, word order or punctuation.
Reminder: I define grammar as the words we choose, how we string them together, and how we use punctuation to give them meaning.
News stories and their headlines should be examples of excellent writing. They also should conform to Standard English, defined as the way educated people write and speak. Writing in haste is no excuse for careless headline grammar errors.
1) How To Act When Someone Around You Loses Their Job
In 2017, the Associated Press proclaimed that nouns and pronouns no longer have to match in cases of gender sensitivity. I strongly oppose the change. In this headline, the indefinite pronoun someone is singular, but their is a plural possessive.
Rather than using the awkward someone loses his/her job, the headline could easily have conformed to standard usage if it had been phrased this way:
How To Act When Someone Around You Loses A Job
2) Look At Aaron Rogers Amazing House
Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rogers no doubt earns enough money to have an amazing house, but this headline lacks the apostrophe that shows the house belongs to him. When a name ends in s, show possession by adding an apostrophe:
Look At Aaron Rogers’ Amazing House
3) Students Walkout Across Country to Support Florida School-Shooting Survivors
To walk out is a phrasal verb; a walkout is a noun.
An earlier post, One Word or Two: Use Care With Your Shortcuts, has a list of other word combinations called phrasal verbs — a verb and a preposition that, when joined, often form a noun: set up/setup | break down/breakdown | start up/startup | cut back/cutback … and more. The headline should read:
Students Walk Out Across Country to Support Florida School-Shooting Survivors
4) Parkland Survivor Criticizes Laura Ingraham For Only Apologizing After Advertisers Fled
As so often is the case, the modifier only is misplaced. When only precedes apologizing, it implies that apologizing was not enough. Should she have done more than apologize?
The criticism underlying the report was aimed at the timing of her apology. Some thought Ms. Ingraham should have apologized immediately, rather than waiting until some advertisers withdrew their support of her program. A clearer headline would have been:
Parkland Survivor Criticizes Laura Ingraham For Apologizing Only After Advertisers Fled
5) What Does It Feel Like to Be Wrong? Our strong need to be right and it’s impact on our lives
The first line works, but the subhead is punctuated to read:
Our strong need to be right and it is impact on our lives
People continue to confuse it’s, the contraction for it is, and its, the possessive form of the pronoun it. Here’s how the line should read:
Our strong need to be right and its impact on our lives
I hear from plenty of people who lament the apparent lack of grammar knowledge in some media representatives who are considered professional communicators: print, electronic, and television journalists and commentators.
We’re all judged by the way we write and speak. Don’t let careless grammar or lack of grammar mastery detract from your credibility.
Kathleen Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. Knowing others do, too, she wrote an easy-to-use grammar book called Grammar for People Who Hate Rules to help people write with authority and confidence.
Share examples of headline grammar errors you find.