Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"Punny" Headlines Driving You to Pull Your Hair Out?

Puns have no place in headlines. That's what you are taught in Journalism class in that chapter on newswriting. The thought behind this edict is that puns can harm a story in several ways - they tend to distract the reader from the story; they make light of what may be a serious news item; headlines with puns may be clever, but they may not reflect the actual content of the story.

Two Gannett editors, Meg Downey and Frank Sutherland, exhort headline writers to avoid puns, which "elicit groans rather than draw readers in or they make light of a serious issue." They point to this headline to illustrate their point: "Levi Strauss to button up six plants" on, they say, "a serious story about the clothing manufacturer laying off 36,000 workers."

"The disease of pun-ism seems to be spreading," says Jim Barger, sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Used in moderation, like bourbon, they can leave the reader with a pleasant glow. But too many groaners can lead to glassy eyes and and readers wondering what's on television."

The San Antonio Express-News (via Poynter) went so far so as ban puns in its headlines after one particularly productive day in which copy editors produced nine pun headlines. According to Editor Robert Rivard, the decision to ban puns came on the heels of "predictable e-mails from readers dismissing us as a serious newspaper."

That, in my opinion, was a rather drastic step. I enjoy puns in headlines. If I don't go on to read the story following it, it's probably because the subject matter did not interest me in the first place any way. While there are terrible puns (such as the Levi Strauss one, for example), I have come across some mighty clever ones too that actually add to the story.

I was therefore happy to find that in spite of the prevailing wisdom in the newspaper industry, there were a number of "punny" headlines in the newspapers over the past couple of days - all relating to the one story of the forfeited cricket test match between England and Pakistan at the Oval and each one a play on the umpire's name Hair. (I haven't seen a photograph of Hair with his umpire's hat off. I wonder if he has any.)

'Pakistan demand Hair cut' read an August 21 headline in the Guardian (a clever headline, and I did go on the read the story). "A hair-raising past" says this Cricinfo headline. "Series with fraught histroy sitting on a Hair trigger" opines a Telegraph headline. "Pakistan lay blame on Hair for parting of ways". Now, is that a pun? The headline seems contrived. You can almost feel the effort that must have gone into the drafting of that headline. Moreover, "parting of ways" is not exactly how I would describe the Hair-Pakistan relationship.

Here's another "Hair cut" word play though not as good as the Guardian headline: "Hair cuts an over-officious figure in the game". "Pakistan no stranger to bad Hair day" according to The Times. "Hair's some more bad news for Pak" reads a not so good pun on the CNN-IBN website.

Before we go further, let me confess to my own attempt at punning in my post titled "Umpire Alleges Ball Tampering: Hair Today Gone Tomorrow?" Here's another in Desicritics writer Desh's post, "Darrell Caught in Pakistan's Hair."

Some of them - OK, may be a couple - are good, the rest rather insipid. So what makes a headline with a pun a good headline? A Capital Idea quotes a book called Headlines and Deadlines:
Two tests can be propounded for puns, whether in a headline or elsewhere. The first is whether each of the two meanings of the word forming the pun is appropriate. ...

The second test is based on the theory that the basis of humor is incongruity and unexpectedness. This means that the pun should not be obvious; it should not be just lying around waiting to be picked up ... The best advice that can be given to the headline writer is to avoid the pun unless he is convinced that it is exceptionally good. If there is one thing that most newspapers need, it is more sophistication. The bad pun, like the childish rhyme, is the mortal enemy of this quality.

Almost all of the Hair puns were just lying around waiting to be picked up.


Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading your post. And like you, I like seeing a good pun in the headline. But sometimes they do make you groan. And this is not just restricted to News Papers. I remember a time when the government employees in Tamil Nadu were on strike and Headlines today had this slug for their story - `Labour pain'.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


like most ladies, i doubt if you would raise a hue and cry if you were to be a hair pun or two short! ;-)

- s.b.