Commas in headlines

February 3, 2004
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Nicole muses on the right and wrong reasons to put commas in headlines.

For those of you who don’t write heads for a living: a comma implies “and”:

Scores of angry ducks, geese infest City Hall

Nicole’s point is that it’s bad enough we’ve turned “and” into a comma … we shouldn’t make headlinese even more insufferable by using commas to mean “but” or “or.” (Fine, now that “Conjunction Junction” song by those Grammar Rocks people is stuck in my head) .

Long as we’re on the subject of punctuating headlines: not everybody is clear on what to do with a semicolon in a headline. My rule is that it substitutes for a period and cuts the headline into two sentences. If the second half of the head is a complete thought, it should be capitalized.
Example:

City Hall coated in fowl feces;
Mayor seeks disaster relief

I guess it’s one of the odd conventions that because we don’t put periods in headlines, we have to use semicolons.

Speaking of bad habits, one of the worst is taking “to be” verbs out of headlines. On the features desk we try to put ‘em back in, if at all possible.

My goal is to make headlines sound like actual sentences that were written by an actual writer rather than something cobbled together by a technician hired to make X number of words/letters fit into a tight space.

3 Responses to Commas in headlines

  1. Nicole on February 3, 2004 at 6:30 pm

    I’ve never heard of capitalizing the first word after a semicolon. Is this common? Is it the Merc’s style?
    And would you do it even if it didn’t start a new line? Fowl feces coats
    city; Mayor gripes
    That looks bad to me.

  2. Nicole on February 3, 2004 at 6:31 pm

    Make that:
    Fowl feces coats
    city; Mayor gripes

  3. tom on February 3, 2004 at 9:56 pm

    All the sudden I’m drawing a blank on where I heard that edict before. Must’ve been a previous employer.