Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

A warning about warnings

with 9 comments

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Newspaper headline writers love the word ‘warned’. But we punters can be forgiven for sometimes being bamboozled by it. Look at these examples:

  • Out-of-hours GP service warned of death risks (Independent)
  • Police warned of risk posed by shooting suspect Raoul Moat (Independent)
  • Bankers warned of further tax on profits and pay (Telegraph)
  • Teachers warned of Sats problems (BBC news website)

Is it possible to say who did the warning? I don’t think so. In these examples the GP service, the police and the bankers were warned, but not the teachers: they issued the warning.

So be warned: you may know what you mean but there’s a good chance your readers won’t.



9 Responses

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  1. They should have put ‘were warned by’ I think, because I have no idea either.


    17/07/2010 at 8:40 am

    • Hi, Lisa. Thanks. I think headline writers have a superstitious fear of verbs. Slightly off topic, my favourite headline of all time is:

      Book lack in Ongar

      The story was about libraries being closed across the county of Essex in the UK. Ongar is a town in Essex. The headline is, of course, a very clever reworking of the title of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger.


      17/07/2010 at 10:23 am

  2. Hi Deborah,

    I think much of the problem stems from the space constraints on headline writers.

    I think a little ambiguity in a headline is forgiveable as long as all is made clear in the first few lines of body text. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.


    17/07/2010 at 4:07 pm

    • Hi, Ron — yes, you’re so right. Headline writing when done properly is a real skill (one I don’t possess). And as well as the limited space the writer will often be working to deadline. I might be able to come up with something half-decent after an hour or so, but not within minutes.


      17/07/2010 at 4:22 pm

      • Here’s one from a Guardian Weekend sub-head “Can I tell how cloves will taste before eating them?”

        Well, yes, they’ll taste like cloves, seems a sensible answer. It’d be wrong, though, because what’s actually under discussion is garlic.

        Bafflingly, there is, in this instance, more than enough room to accommodate the word “garlic” in the block of space allocated.


        17/07/2010 at 11:51 pm

        • Thanks, Ron. That is a strange one. And, as you say, even if the word ‘garlic’ had been used, who asks that sort of question?


          18/07/2010 at 9:41 am

          • Next week, The Guardian tackles another pressing issue: “How can I tell what a brick to the head feels like before it happens?”

            Michael Farrell

            18/07/2010 at 6:03 pm

            • Ha – don’t get me started on funny headlines. Oh, go on then (all genuine):

              Federal agents raid gun shop, find weapons

              17 remain dead in morgue shooting spree

              Man accused of killing lawyer receives a new attorney

              15 pit bulls rescued; two arrested

              City unsure why the sewer smells

              Charles’ visit had village heaving

              Insert headline


              18/07/2010 at 6:37 pm

              • hahaha. Excellent. *off to try to find one I read recently*

                Michael Farrell

                18/07/2010 at 7:12 pm

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