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Headline writing: Punctuation and splits

Putting punctuation and splits into the same lesson may seem odd, but the two fit together in an important way: The best headlines have lines that work independently and fluidly. The easiest way to achieve that is to follow some simple guidelines.

Punctuation: Use semicolons where you would usually use periods (most of the time), and use single quotes where you would use double quotes in copy. For instance:

Student Senate meets with Hemenway;
long-term tuition policy nears approval

Troupe puts a twist on ‘Oliver’

Strive to keep all punctuation except hyphens at the ends of lines. Don’t use a hyphen at the beginning or the end of a line. The Student Senate example above shows the proper approach with semicolons and hyphens. Work hard to avoid lines that split words the way this one does:

Senate seeks long-
term tuition policy

Splits: A split headline is one in which parts of verb, adjectival or prepositional phrases are on different lines. You can’t always avoid splits, especially with one-column headlines. And if your choice is between a stilted headline that doesn’t split and a more fluid one that does, you may be better off splitting the lines. Before you resort to that, though, see whether you can’t modify the design of a page to give yourself additional space.

The biggest problem with splits is that they can impede understanding. In some cases, the result is downright comical. For example:

College may ban sex
offenders from dorms

Man surrenders in bus
stop abduction of teen

Often, you can avoid splits by making a few adjustments:

City plans to
buy new
buses by
August

City plans
to buy
new buses
by Augus
t

Also try to avoid ending lines of headlines with prepositions, especially the first line of a multi-line head.

Sometimes, though, especially in one-column headlines, you are forced to choose between a split phrase and clarity. Always choose clarity. For example, here’s an example of an awkward split headline. Beneath it is an alternative. It includes a split prepositional phrase, but the phrasing is much more fluid.

Failed hit
case lands
in court

Trial set
in case of
failed hit

For additional help with headlines, see my Focus on Web Heads under Downloads.

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