Grammar Moses: Have you ever dissected a headline?

You love to hate headlines.

I get it. A headline is a summation of a story told in shorthand or something that teases the most interesting or important slice of a story.

And because they are generally short and sometimes shoehorned into tight configurations, they're some of the most difficult things to write well.

Consequently, they're some of the easiest things to second-guess.

I hear from a lot of you about headlines, which most of the time have a very good defense.

Dick Crouse wrote last month with questions about the Page 1 headline: "Poll: 1 in 4 don't ever plan to retire."

I think the headline does its job, but Dick wanted to explore (in a good-natured way) other possibilities:

1) "1 in 4 don't ever plan to retire."

"Ever" in Dick's first alternative seems merely to add emphasis.

"Say, Sylvia, you've been running that company for 20 years. Your kids are grown and out of the house. Why don't you just retire?"

"I'll tell you why. You've met my slob of a husband, Bob, who's been retired for 10 years. It's enough to have to come home to him every night. I don't EVER plan to retire."

2) "1 in 4 don't plan to retire."

Dick's second alternative is nice and direct. They plan to work until they drop.

3) "1 in 4 never plan to retire."

My response to this one: This seems either fatalistic or a profession of love for the work. I guess it depends on whether you drill holes in identical pieces of metal eight hours a day or you judge elite cheeseburger-cooking contests.

"I never plan to retire, but I never planned to get a neck tattoo, either. It just sort of happened. So, you never know. Things could change. I might retire next week."

One might construe "never" in this option to suggest a lack of preparation.

4. "1 in 4 plan to never retire."

The construction of this option is clunky. I like to put the adverb in front of the verb in a sentence like this (I never plan to retire.) but I've already told you I'm not fond of that option.


This will be a golden oldie for those of you who've read this column for a few years, but it's a topic worth repeating.

"Is it now acceptable to be using a plural in referring to a singular subject?" wrote Therese Murphy. "It came back to me again while reading a column last Sunday when the writer included this item: 'Having trouble with using "they" to refer to an individual who doesn't use "him" or "her"?' I have seen it so many times. For example: 'Every homeroom teacher should prepare their classroom.' I would like to hear your opinion on this as I was always taught to express using the proper agreement."

Therese: Thanks for forcing me to perform quote-within-a-quote-within-a-quote punctuation calisthenics.

To answer your question: "They" is pretty much the standard these days for people who don't identify as "he" or "she."

I'm not fond of this practice because for centuries "they" has signified a plural. There are plenty of situations in which using "they" as a gender-neutral personal pronoun would cause confusion for the reader. And I don't like intentionally causing confusion, unless, of course, I'm playing tennis with someone much faster than I.

The Associated Press allows the use of "they" for this purpose, but only if it doesn't create awkwardness. It recommends writing around it.

The Swedes came up with a new word - "hen" - as gender-neutral personal pronoun, and I'd be all in favor of using something like that if someone were to come up with one for English.

You're all wet

I wrote recently about how much time we spend taking our figurative machetes to unnecessarily wordy expressions.

Charles Elwert has his favorites:

• Wet paint. "Why not just 'wet?' We already know it is paint."

• He didn't come to a complete stop. "Just 'He didn't stop.'"

• These are real people, not actors. "Aren't actors real people?"

Hmmm, There are plenty of CGI actors these days, but good point.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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