Errors & Omissions: Why do we persist in putting obvious questions in headlines?

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The Independent Online

Dominic Lawson's Tuesday column was advertised on the front page with this puff: "Why do we hate it so when the super-rich are generous?" That's easy. It is because when the super-rich make charitable donations they are exercising arbitrary power on a scale that we cannot hope to enjoy. I don't need to read Lawson's piece to find an answer to that one.

That is not to say that the super-rich ought not to be generous, nor even that they ought not to be in a position to be generous on a huge scale. You may argue that the resentment their generosity arouses is mean and undignified. But that is not the argument we are having today. The point just now is that there is no big mystery about what provokes the resentment.

If a puff takes the form of a question, it needs to be a beguiling puzzle that will lead the reader into the article. If there is an obvious answer, the question is pointless.

Bit of a shock: Here is the opening of a news story published on Monday: "It is a common calamity. You book yourself into a cheap hotel, relax and reward yourself by assailing the mini-bar. The following morning you come to pay the bill and feign surprise when you realise you've trebled your outgoings."

It is hard to tell what the writer thinks "feign" means. I guess the phrase "feign surprise" has entered unexamined into his vocabulary, with the assumption that it means something like "express surprise" or "suffer a surprise". In fact "feign" means to forge, pretend or mock up; a feigned emotion is expressed but not truly felt. The word comes from the same Latin root as "fiction" and "figment". The surprise of the hotel guest faced with an unexpectedly large bill is not feigned at all.

Ideas of honour: A news story on Monday reported on the murder of a British couple in Pakistan after a marriage that had been arranged between their daughter and a Pakistani man fell through. The first sentence read: "A couple from Birmingham have been murdered in Pakistan in a suspected honour killing." There were no quotation marks around the word "honour". I think in such cases there should be.

If you start with the assumption – as I assume we all do – that honour is a good thing, you will want to distance yourself from the claim made by people who commit murders in family disputes that what they are doing is defending their honour. So put the word in quotes.

If you leave the quotation marks off, you distance yourself from the idea of honour itself. You are implying that the killing was truly a matter of honour and you are happy to accept that. It follows that honour is just this funny idea that some people in Pakistan seem to get frightfully upset about. I should be sorry to see such assumptions embodied in our language.

What's the point? A headline on a news page on Monday said: "Speeding middle-class drivers are antisocial: police."

The usual headline punctuation has been mixed up here. It should be either "Speeding middle-class drivers are antisocial – police" or "Police: speeding middle-class drivers are antisocial." When the person speaking comes at the end we use a dash, when at the beginning, a colon. The name generally comes at the end with a dash when, as here, the important thing is what is being said. Conversely, the name comes at the beginning with a colon when the important thing is who is speaking – "Blair: I was wrong about Iraq."

Wonders of Nature: The caption to last Saturday's Picture of the Day began like this: "The sight of bears lurking in the shallows for salmon as the fish swim upstream to spawn is one of the best known of Nature's annual spectacles, but no less mesmerising for that."

This reads like the commentary of a wildlife documentary film from the 1950s. These days, we do not personify Nature as some kind of Hollywood Homeric goddess whose business is to lay on mesmerising spectacles for the amusement and edification of the human race.