Punning your way into confusion

Headline writers love word play.

And word play can be an effective tool for conveying an idea in a headline, especially if the story is lighthearted.

Sometimes, though, headline writers need to leave the word play on the playground and just play it straight.

This was certainly one of those times.

My first thought when I read the headline was that a prairie fire had burned out of control and had made it all the way to the Kansas City area. Only then did I see the kicker, “air quality.”

Even the phrase fumes about would have made the idea clear. I’d have preferred something less obvious, though, something that didn’t make me roll my eyes and wonder whether the headline writer had considered anything beyond the most obvious pun.

I had the same reaction with the headline below.

Yes, I got the connection between Pinewood Derby and whittling (like a blow from a hammer), but even when whittle is used to mean form, it carries the connotation of cutting or trimming or reducing.

That’s not the idea the headline needed to have. (Hone might have worked.)

Unfortunately, too many headline writers can’t steer clear of the pun’s siren song.

Some never seem to understand that word play works best as a wink and a nod, not as a fart on a crowded bus.

We could all take a lesson from Pete Seeger.

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