Tag Archives: titles

Forget the title

I have, on occasion, gotten responses to my articles published on commercial sites (Slate, The Week, BBC) that have focused on the titles.

Here’s the TL;DR of what follows:

Paid authors on commercial sites don’t write the titles. Forget the titles.

Seriously: When you read an article, the title is probably what drew you into it. Yay for the headline writer. They did their job. Now you’re reading the article. The person who wrote the article is a different person from the person who wrote the title. The article was written first. The title is an ad for the article.

Most people who read articles don’t actually have a clear idea of how articles are made, it turns out. A sparkling example of this came in a comment on one of my articles that was republished on Slate’s Lexicon Valley. The reader clearly assumed that I had written it following the same process he had probably used writing his last essay, which was probably for grade 9 Social Studies:

1) Come up with a topic; make it the title.

2) Start looking things up. Write as you go.

3) Stop when you run out of things.

This, as it happens, is pretty much the opposite of how real professional writers actually write their articles. Here is the sequence I typically go through:

1) Think of an interesting topic for an article. (Occasionally a publication or site that you’ve worked with will suggest a topic and see if you want to write on it. Your answer is probably YES! Writing is a drug that sometimes pays rather than costing.)

2) Do some research to see whether it’s feasible and which way it will actually go.

3) Pitch the topic to the site you want to publish it. (If you’re writing for your own blog, skip this. If you’re writing for a group blog, check with the other contributors to make sure you’re not eating someone else’s lunch.)

4) If they OK it, research the topic. Make notes.

5) Think about how to structure the article.

6) Write the article. Do a draft, revise, feel disgusted, revise thoroughly, restructure, revise, realize you can’t view it with any objectivity anymore, be done. Maybe. Put a provisional title at the top when you start. Change it when you finish, if not before.

7) Send the article to the publication. (If it’s your own blog or one you’re a joint contributor to, you will go with your last title and just publish it. And then maybe look it over in the morning and fix a few things.)

8) The publication’s editor will go over it and tighten it up and change things. If you are wise, you will assume they are right (except where they have accidentally changed the sense, in which case you obviously didn’t write it clearly, so you negotiate a revision if you can). You lack objectivity at this point. Also, they’re paying you, so that counts for something. If they’re not paying you, well, they still have a fresh perspective; how much do you respect them? Anyway, they usually run the changes past you before publishing. Not always.

9) Someone – your editor, perhaps, or some mystical nameless other – will come up with a grabby title for the article. You may or may not get to see it before it is published. (I know one person, exactly ONE person, who gets to write his own titles and they’re used as is. Hi, Dad!)

10) Someone may add theme images with or without captions. You will see them no sooner than any other reader of the publication (website). If they’re really problematic, you can always ask if they can be adjusted, but you would be wise to be quick about it.

So there it is. If you’re reading an article, you may have gotten to it because of the title, sure, but the title is an ad for the article, almost certainly written by someone else. Once you’ve started reading the article, forget the title.

An article title, “An article title ‘An article title needs commas’ needs commas,” needs commas

A little while back, a fellow editor asked me about commas and appositives, particularly with an eye to mentioning titles of books and such like. Consider the following:

A 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” makes no mention of the weather in January.

The question was whether the commas should be there. It’s a restrictive, isn’t it? You’re specifying which report, right?

Actually, structurally, no. It’s kind of counterintuitive. In fact, with just a noun phrase there, you can’t make it restrictive. Compare:

A passenger, a young lady, sat next to me.

*A passenger a young lady sat next to me.

A passenger, who was a young lady, sat next to me.

A passenger who was a young lady sat next to me.

When it’s just a noun phrase, it’s effectively an alternate subject (or object, in a case such as “I sat next to another passenger, a young lady”) – you need to make a full relative clause to make a restrictive.

Now, if you use the, you can go with or without commas when it’s a name or title:

The report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

The report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

Note that the second is restrictive, while the first assumes that the report has already been established in a previous sentence and we are here just naming it. With “a” rather than “the” you of course can’t have established it before, but you are on the spot establishing it, and you would need a relative clause to restrict it further:

A report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

*A report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report, called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

In some nonstandard versions of English we can use a simple noun phrase as a restrictive: “I met a man Bojangles and he danced for me”; we see survivals of this in something like “He is her man Friday.” But it’s not a real option in standard modern English.

And how about an instance like the following – should there be a comma after “report”?

In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” the authors pretend it’s not brass monkey weather in January.

In fact, it’s fine as it is as long as the report is not previously established in the text. If we said “In a 2011 report,” we would need to use commas, but with “In the 2011 report” we can’t use the comma (the comma after is fine because it’s the end of the propositional phrase that’s modifying the main clause). If the report is previously established – “…there were annual reports on Ottawa tourism from 2009 to 2014” – then your sentence would be “In the 2011 report, ‘Fun Things’” etc.

Here are the three possible combinations of articles and commas, with comments:

  • In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – specifies which book you’re talking about that you are newly introducing
  • In the 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – the book has been previously named, so you’re not at this point establishing its identity, you’re just clarifying it
  • In a 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – “a 2011 report” posits some report, tout court, without greater specificity possible; you can’t narrow down on a because then it’s not a report, it’s the report, this report – so if you add the title it has to be non-restrictive because a can’t be restricted further

There was one more question, based on a reading of a dictum from the Chicago Manual of Style: If you use something like called before the title, shouldn’t it have a comma? Like this:

A 2011 report called, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” etc.

The answer is no, it shouldn’t. It’s an error I see on occasion, I think because of confusion with sentences such as “John said, ‘Come in,’” and “Suzie called, ‘It’s time for dinner!’” In the use here, call is a verb that takes three arguments (in the syntactic/semantic sense of argument: an entity or actor or complement): a subject and two objects. The first object is what (or who) is being called, and the second is what that person or thing is being called (i.e., the name). “I shall call him John.” When used as an adjective, the subject is removed (same as in the passive voice) but there still need to be both objects. “A boy1 called John2 came to see you” – not “A boy called, John, came to see you.” (You can write “A boy, called John, came to see you,” making it non-restrictive, because “called John” is a relative clause, though a nonfinite one. But that’s a separate matter.)

The rule is the same for entitled: “A report entitled ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa’ just came out” – not “A report entitled, ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa,’ just came out.” It has the same argument structure.

Always remember: approach authoritative grammar guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style with the Buddha’s dictum (a variant thereof) in mind: if something you read in it conflicts with your sense of what is usable English, follow your sense… and figure out what the reason is for the discrepancy. If following a rule makes something sound weird to you, the odds are good that the rule doesn’t apply in that way in that instance.

Chez what?

A colleague who works on French and English texts was musing lately on French place names such as “Chez Pierre” and how in English we would deal with a place name starting with a preposition – her example was “At Pete’s Place.” Could we say “The party is at At Pete’s Place”?

Part of the issue, of course, is that in English we don’t normally use that kind of prepositional construction in place names. But a parallel could be found in a synopsis of Of Human Bondage or perhaps if you looked into Into the Woods or cast your eyes on On the Waterfront, and perhaps glanced at At Fault (by Kate Chopin)…

You can’t get away from the fact that At is part of the name. If you don’t like the at-at, then rewrite! But short of going out with a chainsaw and cutting the At off the sign (as one colleague suggested), you can’t change the name of the place – articles (a, the) may be dispensable, but articles are specifiers on noun phrase heads, whereas prepositions are heads of prepositional phrases, and you can’t cut off heads so glibly. (An argument may be made as to the role of the prepositional phrase as a case proxy for its complement noun phrase, but we can’t avoid the overt syntactic realization and its entailments.)

And anyway, heads though they be, prepositions are usually unstressed except at the beginning of a name, so it’s not quite so awkward, as we have seen above.

editor James Harbeck on titles and job descriptions before names

Titles and job descriptions before names are compound modifiers. Here’s an extract from an email I sent internally a while ago on this topic:

When there is a nonrestrictive modifier (set off by a comma or commas), the sentence has to be syntactically coherent without it. News media often make the mistake of confusing nonrestrictive modifiers with noun heads preceded by attributive nouns. Here’s an example: “The article was written by noted pharmacist, Trish Rawn.” This is not proper. Continue reading