Yesterday (at the time of this writing), John McIntyre, one of the titans of the editing profession, posted the following on his Facebook page, courtesy of The Poke:*
The Poke’s caption was, “The kind of headline a journalist waits their whole life to write….” This headline is funnier when we realize that a village is a quite common type of municipality in the UK. Of course, this headline will never, ever, ever match the best headline of all time: Headless Body in Topless Bar, but what could? Anyway, I was hoping that the comments would explore other headlines of note, both brilliant and cringeworthy. Instead, they were knocked off-course when an editor responded with this: “A journalist waits THEIR whole life to write? Really?”
Cyberspace contains an army of editors both great (John) and small (me) who have addressed this issue by presenting evidence and argument that the singular they is proper, good old-fashioned, literate English, so several people responded to her objection to the singular they—not only by asserting that the use of the singular they was proper in that sentence, but also by linking to articles which explored this issue in more depth. Her response was this: “Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for editors to be attacked for insisting on the proper use of English.” And also this: “Yes, an opinion. Everyone is entitled to one. That doesn’t mean we all agree.” Someone else supported this editor with the simple assertion that she was never wrong.
There are problems with her approach and that of her fan: Both of these editors cite a grammatical rule that doesn’t exist; they fail to acknowledge, let alone address, the evidence and arguments against their imaginary rule; and they use this made-up rule to demonstrate their grammatical superiority—both to the original writer and those who disagree with them. Are there occasions when an editor might make a change for subjective reasons? Sure. Editing takes judgment as well as knowledge. But there’s a difference between saying, “This change will make the sentence flow better,” and “I know the rules, so I’m better than you are.” (Especially when the rule is made up.)
Also, if someone presents evidence and argument for an issue of fact, and you want to further your own position, then “It’s my opinion” doesn’t carry a lot of weight. And, while “X says so” might be interesting, it should never be dispositive, because X’s position still has to stand on its own merit.
So, back to the original subject, if anyone has any more classic headlines, good, bad, and ugly, by all means link to them in the comments.
*Please don’t go visit the site right away. You will be gone for hours.
**There was originally a typo in this blog post, which just goes to show that even editors need editors. Fortunately, I caught it.