I collect self-canceling headlines, but I’m tired of them
By William Zinsser
October 6, 2017
I’ve become a collector of a new journalistic form, commonly found in the news sections of The New York Times. It’s the self-canceling headline. The top line states a fact or a situation; the second line starts with But and says, in effect, “It won’t work.”
GOP LISTS SWEEPING GOALS,
BUT THEIR IMPACT IS UNCERTAIN
Translation: No need to read this. Come back next year.
CITY NOTES DIP IN CRIME,
BUT WORST VIOLENCE IS UP
Translation: You won’t get robbed, but you may get killed.
Even when the headline doesn’t contain But, the message is no less apocalyptic.
ELECTIONS AROUSE HOPE
AND DOUBTS IN MYANMAR
AS HEALTH LAW
RISKS ARE SEEN
Risks are seen, fears stoked, losses predicted. Also delays and obstacles, setbacks and snags. Questions linger. Misgivings are expressed. Legislators balk. Naysayers say nay. It’s a lexicon for the faint of heart.
I started my collection last summer after a bout of eye surgery left me temporarily unable to read small newspaper type. Instead I just scanned the headlines and found myself living in a world that had come to a standstill.
HOSPITALS MAKE NO HEADWAY
IN CURBING ERRORS, STUDY SAYS
Translation: It’s still not safe to get sick.
EVEN REUSABLE GROCERY BAGS
CAN CARRY ENVIRONMENTAL RISK
Translation: Don’t bother going green. Nothing can be done about this stuff anyway.
MANY STENT PROCEDURES,
THEN MULTIPLE LAWSUITS
Translation: Have you been thanking God for the stent that saved your husband’s life? Not so fast!
We can be glad that the giants of American history weren’t deterred by the headlines in the morning paper.
JEFFERSON WRITES ‘DECLARATION,’
BUT BRITS VOW ARMS BUILD-UP
LINCOLN FREES SLAVES,
BUT REBS SEE BLOODSHED
I’m not a but person. I’m a probably person. I think bold ideas can be made to work if enough people believe in them. America was built by but-ignorers. Quite a few of them were women: Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks. Many were inventors and scientists: Wilbur and Orville Wright, Henry Ford, Jonas Salk. Some were athletes: Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente. Some were just mavericks with a crazy dream. Gutzon Borglum proved in the hills of South Dakota that even an immigrant’s son could move mountains.
My eyes are better now, so I could go back to reading the actual articles in the Times, not just the headlines.
But doubts remain.
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.