Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Today's grievance: the use of a comma in a headline to represent something other than "and."

Headlinese can be tough enough to parse without adding this error into the mix. We let "to be" verbs disappear. We use nouns as adjectives. We kill all articles. We substitute "ands" with commas.

But don't force a reader to scratch his head over headlines that replace "or" with a comma:
Is that for here, to go?
120 killed, injured in suicide blast
Migrating bears to be relocated, trapped
Commas mean "and," and applying that basic headline rule renders these heads meaningless. People could probably figure out what the head writer meant ? but that's not their job. They are skimming for news, not solving a morning-magic fun-time puzzle.

Less egregious — but still wrong — are commas used to replace "but":
Gatti pummeled, wins anyway
Kerry seen as strong, beatable
Child survives crash, is killed by second car
These are a bit trickier because the comma doesn't make these sentences incorrect. "And" isn't technically false. However, given the space to elaborate, no headline writer would say "Kerry seen as strong and beatable." The point of these headlines is the contrast between the two ideas.


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