I, for one, prefer commas

Published 7:00 am Saturday, September 19, 2015

I would like to explain a comma I used in a headline from last Friday. I saw on Facebook that there was some confusion over a headline I wrote. The headline was “Police make drug, neglect arrests,” and the confusion was whether the Picayune police have been making drugs and in so doing, have neglected to make arrests.

So far as I know, the local police do not make drugs. I just want to make that clear, and I am sorry for whatever confusion may be out there.

Traditionally, newspaper headlines don’t use to-be verbs (you’ll rarely see an is, or, an are, for example) and we tend to avoid articles like the, or an, or a, and, instead of the word and, we use a comma.

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We do this for the sake of brevity.

The Internet is changing the rules because Internet editors who write Internet headlines are not constrained by the same special limitations that we, who toil yet in paper and ink, are still mired. The result is, their headlines tend to sound more natural, less stilted and certainly more like click bait (though to be fair, my headline about the police and drugs certainly caught a lot of attention).

But consider, for example, these headlines pulled straight from Buzzfeed today, as I write this:

“The Colbert bump is real.” And “Here’s what the Muppets looked like as teens.”

That’s Buzzfeed for you. Always asking the hard questions.

I suspect very few Buzzfeed headline writers had to suffer through a semester-long class on newspaper headline writing, but there was a time when one was graded based on how close, to the pica, one could get a headline and still have it make some sense. The trick was to know a lot of small words and play it free and lose with the commas. Now, the new media is doing away with the arcane and confusing rules and regs of the newspaper medium in favor of something more accessible. These days, a good Internet headline begins with a number. For example, another from Friday’s Buzzfeed: “18 photos that prove dogs can teach us about love.” I don’t know what’s worse, that some people can be taught about love by photos of dogs, or that it’s someone’s actual job to write such a story which is nothing but a series of captioned dog photos. Whatever the case, I suspect we’re all doomed.