Errors & Omissions: The occasional verb wouldn't go amiss in a headline

The headline gremlins have been busy. On Tuesday this appeared on a news page: "Blair warned in 2000 Iraq war was illegal." Does that mean that Blair warned somebody that the war was illegal, or that he was warned?

Readers will work out eventually that "warned" is here not the past tense of "warn", but the past participle, with the auxiliary verb "was" omitted, as is permitted by the headlinese convention. But it is irritating to have to make the effort, and the problem could easily have been fixed: "Blair was told ..." would have fitted in the same space.

In the US, incidentally, the headline conventions are different. There you can omit the subject of a verb, something British headlines never do. An American headline might read: "Warned Blair in 2000 Iraq war was illegal", meaning "[Somebody] warned Blair ..."

If you thought that was confusing, what about this, from a news page on Thursday? To appreciate its horror, you have to see the original line breaks.


air traffic


take a child

to work day

What does it mean? The human brain does not know where to start. You need to know that the story is about an incident in which a father took his child to work in air-traffic control at JFK airport, New York. The kid was permitted to speak the words clearing an aircraft for takeoff, to which the pilot responded: "Awesome job." Once you know what the story says you can begin to understand the headline. But it's supposed to be the other way around.

The headline might just about have worked if the page layout had permitted it to be presented in one line, with the addition of a few hyphens:

'Awesome': air-traffic control's take-a-child-to-work day.

Cliché of the week: "US pours oil on troubled waters of Falklands row". That headline appeared on a news page on Wednesday. Since the row has been stirred up by drilling for oil, that well-worn line about oil on troubled waters must have appeared unbidden in the writer's mind. Unfortunately, as is the way with clichés, it has been misapplied by one who has forgotten its meaning.

Apparently, it really is possible to calm the waves of choppy water by pouring a film of oil on to the surface. Anyway that is what the phrase indicates. To pour oil on troubled waters is to attempt to calm things down. But that is not what the story said the US was doing. On the contrary, David Usborne's report said that Hillary Clinton's remarks had "sent another stiff squall though the Falkland Islands".

The trouble is that nobody pours oil on troubled waters in the literal sense these days. People think the metaphor has something to do with oil spills from tankers or burning petrol on the surface of the sea – both of which make things worse, not better. We should just drop this expression.

Slip and slide: With an election on the way, can we get one thing clear? The point about a landslide is that it changes the landscape. A large amount of rocks, earth and trees slides from one place to another, and afterwards everything looks different.

Let us have no more of this sort of thing (from a leading article on Monday): "Landslide victories tend to follow lifeless campaigns in which the party that knows it is about to taste office (again) sinks into complacency and arrogance." I take that to mean a campaign that produces a victory for the incumbent party. In other words, no change – and no landslide. A landslide, in political terms, is a dramatic result that gives power to a new government.

Oh, no, not again: Some errors are so frequent that pointing them out every time would be tedious. Perhaps they are in the process of becoming accepted usage, but let's not give up yet. Here are two that turned up again this week.

"The televised debates will dominate the election campaign ... in their sweaty, nerve-wracking, unpredictable significance" – commentary on Wednesday. That should be "nerve-racking". The nerves are being stretched, as on a rack.

"Former hippy who led California 30 years ago hopes to run embattled state again" – news blurb on Wednesday. Make that "hippie". "Yuppy" may be clipped and taut, but "hippie" needs to sprawl.

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