The printer’s devil. Remember it/him? Well, it is still very much with us. You cannot kill it. It has the same resilience as corruption in our country. Bad news for editors, obviously. The printer’s devil is still playing its old tricks with the unholy objective of sometimes leaving the egg on the faces of editors. Not a pretty sight, egg on the face.
The printer’s devil tries to wreak havoc where it hurts most – on newspaper headlines. No editor jokes with his headlines. As I pointed out in an earlier column on headlines, headlines tell the newspaper stories. They also market them. It is difficult to think of a newspaper without headlines. In this column, I wish to point out some mischief caused by the printer’s devil. The printer’s devil is not to blame in every case. Some of the clumsy and grammatically incorrect headlines resulted from human errors too.
One peculiarity in the newspaper world is the rule handed down from one generation of editors to another, to wit, a headline must be cast in the present tense: Boko Haram kills three.
Where the past tense is used, the missing verb in the elliptical sentence is understood to be in the present tense: Three people dead. It means: three people are dead. Where you cannot fit in a verb in the present tense, the headline breaches the rule. Exceptions can be forced down our throat with label headlines. In its issue of April 20, page 3, the Daily Trust committed this breach with the headline: EFCC recommended NEMA directors’ suspension – Magu. Correct: EFCC recommends NEMA directors’ suspension – Magu.
Labels are manufactured daily by sub-editors. Sometimes they come in handy to save space. But sometimes they mislead readers. On page 6 of the April 19 issue of the Daily Trust, we find this headline: APC deaf group wants Buhari to sign disability bill. The blind, the deaf, the lame, and others with physical challenges, are also members of the ruling party. However, I do not think they are labelled according to their disabilities: deaf group, lame group, blind group, etc. A sensible rule is: if a label does not improve communication, drop it.
Sometimes a headline can be tautological. On page 30 of the same issue of the newspaper, we find this headline: Court remands 2 for murder over death of brother. One can understand the decision of the headline caster to tell the full story here in the headline. He was unable to choose between murder and death. He could have done well by simply putting it thus: Court remands 2 over death of their brother.
Punctuation marks are important tools in headline casting, as indeed in all communications through the written word. The dash (-) and the comma (,) are regarded as faithful companions of headline writers. Their use saves words and space. Here are two instances where these tools were ignored with unsatisfactory results. On page 3 of the same issue of the newspaper, we find this headline: Shell to invest $15bn, Buhari says. The word, says, is superfluous. Correct: Shell to invest $15bn – Buhari. And on page 39, the newspaper told its readers: Former US First Lady Barbara Bush dies at 92. What is missing here is the comma. Correct: Former US First Lady, Barbara Bush, dies at 92.
Here is another instance found on the front page lead of the Daily Trust of April 17: I’m bothered about security, economy not 2018. To make it clearer and grammatically correct, a comma should have been inserted after economy. It stands for the word, and. Correct: I’m bothered about security, economy, not 2018.
When a headline fails to deliver on its promise, there is a problem. On page 14 of the issue of the newspaper under discussion, the newspaper tells its readers: Group congratulates Keyamo on Buhari appointment. It is not likely that Keyamo appointed Buhari to anything, although that may not be impossible, given the quirks of our national politics. But it is more likely that Buhari buttered Keyamo’s bread with a new appointment. The headline should have read: Group congratulates Keyamo on his appointment by Buhari. Longer but clearer.
Newspaper readers often come across misleading headlines that make them pucker their brows. Here is a fine case. On page 10 of its April 20 issue, the Daily Trust tells its readers: Reps to establish federal polytechnic Malumfashi. Really? The last time I checked, it was not the business of the legislature to establish institutions. The story, really, is that a bill to establish a federal polytechnic, Malumfashi, had passed second reading in the House of Representatives.
Here is a classical mischief of the printer’s devil. On page 44 of the April 15 issue of the Daily Trust, we find this: Allies: strikes to deter Assad, not oust. What did the printer’s devil do with the rest of the headline? Chopped it off, that’s what. Oust is an intransitive verb. It cannot be turned into a noun or a transitive verb. The rascal played the same trick again on page 23 of the May 3 issue of the paper: Prof develops new cattle feed that boost. See what the devil has made of the professor’s discovery? Pox on the devil.
There is an old rule in newspaperdom that few reporters and editors appear not to bother about any more. The old rule says all numbers from one to ten must be written out in words in headlines and in the lead. Numbers above ten are written in Roman numerals. Page 8 of April 13 issue of the paper: Gunmen kill 2 in Makurdi. I think the horse has bolted from the stable. We should let it enjoy its freedom.
Sometimes, you do not know who to blame when you run into a howler such as a story repeated on two different pages of the same issue of a newspaper, sometimes with the same headline or a slight variation. On page 8 of the April 13 issue of the newspaper, we read this story: N450 million money laundering: You have a case to answer, court tells Belgore. We find the same story on page 10 with a slightly different headline: N450 million fraud: court says Belgore, ex-minister have case to answer. Do we blame the devil or the sub-editor? You be the judge.
Reporters and editors still have problems with knowing that when a wife and a husband have been separated by death, the surviving party takes a new title. A surviving husband becomes a widower and a surviving wife becomes a widow. But on page 5 of the May 10 issue, the sub-editor ignored this fine distinction and gave us this: SGF, Ironsi’s wife for songs of Nigeria project. The general is late and does not have a wife any more. The wife he left behind is his widow.
April 11, front page promo: Obasanjo’s coalition collapses into ADC. I do not think it happened that way. The coalition transformed into a political party, ADC.
April 13, front page promo: Nollywood couples who met on screen and got hitched. How did the word hitched find its way into the headline? My guess is that it rode on the back of the printer’s devil. I may be rusty now in that department but I thought that when the chemistry between a young man and a young woman is right, one hooks the other. And we pray there is no hitch in the relationship. (To be continued).