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A quizzical look at language

Simon Ford | Friday 14 January 2011, 12:52


On Saturday, the Daily Mirror ran the headline "Boy, 14, Fire Bomb Quiz" above a report that "A boy of 14 has been arrested on suspicion of being a petrol bomber pictured at last month's tuition fee riots."
And "Chamber offers bosses chance to quiz MP" appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph on 18 January.
Why is it journalists are sometimes tempted to substitute 'quiz' for the verb 'to question'?
Maybe there's something satisfying about seeing an unusual combination of letters written down; or something delicious in the way they roll the tongue, with that final little 'zzz' buzzing through the teeth.
And it's not just the red-top or local press subs who have a weakness for 'quiz': the Independent on Sunday reported on 16 January that the Independent Commission on Banking wanted to further "quiz" Bank of England Governor Mervyn King over regulatory structures.
We are painting pictures with words and the image that 'quiz' conjures up in my mind is of a gameshow - albeit one with tension and jeopardy. But nothing to do with a process that is part of a police investigation, for instance.
So if it was up to me there'd be no more "Extra Time Given to Quiz Shooting Suspects." Sorry if that messes up your headline, but I think it sounds daft.
Post categories: Writing


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1. At 09:17am on 19 Jan 2011, Adam Christie wrote:
Mr Ford,

I am a newspaper sub(-editor) and someone who has worked in journalism for 30 years. I am saddened that someone posting to this site appears not to understand this particular aspect of journalism.

Broadcast journalists face great challenges writing 90 words - about 30 seconds' airtime - that tell stories succinctly and accurately while simultaneously sounding "easy on the ear".

Those working "in words" face similar constraints.

The column is the basic building block of newspaper design. Column widths vary. "Question" probably didn't appear in the Coventry Telegraph headline because it was wider than the column. The choice of the word would have been determined by the format, rather than taste or literacy.

Looking at how many "decks" or lines were available to the headline writer is crucial, otherwise the cricitism is rendered invalid through ignorance. (Newspaper "decks" are rarely mirrored when the same stories appear on websites.)

My instinct suggests that this headline appeared either in three lines of approximately equal length, as:
Chamber offers
bosses chance
to quiz MP

or in two, as:
Chamber offers bosses
chance to quiz MP

"Quiz" is a short word that goes into a headline, regardless of column width; so are "probe" and "bust".

Any one of few subs still working for newspapers and magazines will quickly show you just how difficult it can be to write succinct headlines against such constraints.

Composing short phrases that attract readers' eyes is rarely easy. It becomes more difficult when the key word in the story is too wide for the column. (Take an evening or weekly paper and look through court reports and count how many times "killer" is used in place of "murderer"; two characters may be crucial.)

Where sub-editors still work for regional and local papers, they could well have to do this 40 or 50 times in each seven-hour shift. Time has been rendered too much of a luxury to allow the finesse that many would like.

I offer the following exercises. Try them, please.

For the first, print a few news stories and try to write headlines for each that contain no more than five words, none of which can contain more than nine characters. Do they reflect the story? Accurately?

For the second, you have a single line, but no more than 30 characters - including spaces - altogether. (Journalists working for the BBC's own websites have to work to similar character constraints.)

If you don't like the way headlines are written, would you please try to persuade newspaper proprietors to ditch the "format-first" production systems that they have now introduced across the industry while simultaneously challenging the demands of "search engine optimisation"? Both are the bane of headline writers' lives.

Anyone who is in any doubt about this skill should go back to Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers by Harold Evans (Pimlico, London, 2000, ISBN 0-7126-6447-5), and read chapters 8 and 9. Chapter eight offers a comprehensive discourse about the purpose and art of succinct headline writing. Chapter nine provides an essential glossary. I commend them to you.

Adam Christie





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2. At 10:10am on 20 Jan 2011, Simon Ford wrote:
Hi Adam,

Thanks for your reply, and I understand your frustration, but I still disagree on a fundamental level.

If as you argue, subs are forced into a corner by the space they’re allocated by the designers, surely it’s the designers who are compromising the journalism by dictating the subs' choice of vocabulary.

Or, to put it another way, would you write ‘quiz’ instead of ‘question’ if you had the choice?

For me as a broadcaster, what really grates about substituting ‘quiz’ for ‘question’ is that it just isn’t spoken English. I can’t remember the last time I was in the White Horse and somebody said: “Have you heard about Deano? He’s being quizzed by detectives as part of a drugs probe.” Folk just don’t talk like that.

The late Keith Waterhouse was of a similar opinion.

There’s something else which makes me doubly wary of using ‘quiz’ to mean ‘question’ in a headline, and that’s Search Engine Optimisation. The BBC, among others, has started writing SEO headlines which allow journalists more space to use terms that are likely to be picked up in an Internet search.

So, for example, an SEO headline wouldn't substitute ‘quiz’ when the story was about police questioning a suspect etc.

I reckon the pendulum is swinging back towards the use of straightforward language in headlines as owners accept that’s the best way to drive traffic to the websites and publications.

I hope other people will join in the debate. Please, though, nobody say ‘row’ in the headline.
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