Business Writing Tip #62—Ambiguous Headlines

I love English, and I love spotting the errors that so many of us (including me) make with the language.

One of my favourite pastimes is finding errors in headlines in newspapers. Now, you wouldn’t really expect professional writers to make errors, but we do. We’re all human after all. I would just say you need to take care when you are writing a headline, a heading, or a subject line for an email.headlines

There are two main reasons things go wrong in these kinds of text. Usually the authors:

  1. Avoid using punctuation, and
  2. Don’t form complete sentences.


To give an example of the perils, here’s a headline I copied from a newspaper some years back.

Lack of facilities in schools to hit children

Of course, and thankfully, when we think about it we realise that they mean that the children will be affected by a lack of facilities, rather than the schools don’t have enough children-hitting facilities.

But you can see how easy it is for the meaning to be misconstrued.

It makes for great fun, but you don’t want people to remember your business writing because of how much they laughed!

Just to give you another example of unclear meaning, here’s a headline that was analysed on the website

Gadhafi Forces Retreat

Did Gadhafi force a retreat, or did Gadhafi’s forces retreat? Without reading the article, we’ll never know…

So read your headlines carefully before you publish. Better yet, ask someone else to read them for you.

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