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Readers flummoxed by runaway headlines

Published November 27, 2005

Last Sunday's Perspective inadvertently violated the newspaper industry's voluntary two-puns-per-section quota for headlines. We regret any inconvenience to our readers.

Welcome back, clutter (about the national heartache of too much junk accumulating in our houses) and Caws for celebration (about the heartening survival skills of urban crows) would have been perfectly digestible on their own. But Ex-es of evil (about politicians who have reason to worry that their former wives might drop a dime on them) was more than unwary readers should have been expected to bear.

Our only excuse is that good headlines are hard to write, and puns can be tempting crutches as deadlines loom.

At least they are for me. As a young man, I entered a magazine contest - The Trygve Lee Memorial Pun Toss and Yokohama Throw - that offered prizes for the best puns involving geographical locations.

Some of the winners, involving places such as Norfolk and Nantucket, are best left unrepeated here. I think first place went to "The knee bone's Schenectady the thigh bone." But I did win a consolation prize for "Juarez hell" and "Taiwan on," both of which at least had pith on their side.

Some newspapers, such as the New York Post (Headless body in topless bar ) and Weekly World News (Doomed cannibals ate AIDS victim ), have teams of world-class headline writers. It's the stories under the headlines that are dubious.

Other newspapers specialize in headlines that seem intended to give you an excuse to quit reading and go floss your teeth.

The New Republic once claimed to have discovered the most boring headline ever written: Worthwhile Canadian initiative . The editors argued that the headline ingeniously combined three inherently boring words in such a way as to dissuade even the most adventurous reader from forging ahead into the actual story.

On the other hand, I still remember attending an editing workshop as a 19-year-old intern and hearing a crusty veteran describe the perfect headline. The most popular stories, he said, deal with some element of religion, royalty, romance and/or mystery. So the perfect headline, he claimed, would be:

Good God! The princess is pregnant! Whodunnit?

For some reason, the most memorable headline I ever saw in the Times was: Police flummoxed by writhing raccoon . It wasn't much of a story. I can't even recall why the raccoon was writhing, or how it managed to flummox the police. Yet the headline was strangely compelling.

The second-best headline I ever saw in the Times turned out to be a misunderstanding on my part: Newlyweds get mattress back .

At first, I assumed the unfortunate couple had suffered a repetitive-motion injury on their honeymoon, something akin to carpal-tunnel syndrome or tennis elbow. I feared the headline would spur workers all over Tampa Bay to call in sick the next day: "Boss, I can't make it in. Last night was our anniversary, and I woke up this morning with mattress back."

The actual story turned out to be anticlimactic. Somebody apparently had stolen the lovebirds' mattress but later felt remorse and returned it. Yet the shameless sensationalism of the Times headline had lured me into an otherwise routine story. The public would have been better served if the headline had simply stuck to the boring facts: Barely used Canadian mattress returned to newlyweds .

[Last modified November 27, 2005, 01:17:13]

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