Wordwatch Towers

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

Necessarily avoidable headlines

with 6 comments

Hi everybody, headline goes here please

Image by reinvented via Flickr

It’s easy to nitpick, so I will.

Here’s a headline from The Independent newspaper today:

24,000 unnecessary deaths from diabetes every year

So diabetes causes some necessary deaths? Who gets to judge?

Of course, the headline writer should have used the word ‘avoidable’ instead of ‘unnecessary’. Mainly because it’s accurate.

Meanwhile, over at the Guardian, the headline writer manages to avoid the whole necessary/unnecessary judgement call with this:

Diabetes report reveals 24,000 a year die from condition avoidably early

More accurate, but horribly inelegant. It’s nearly Christmas, so I’ve rewritten it for them and won’t send an invoice:

Diabetes report reveals 24,000 avoidable early deaths each year

So now I’m obsessed with the whole diabetes/some people deserve to die/necessary/unnecessary/avoidably early thing and whizzed over to The Telegraph to see how it’s coping. Here we go:

Up to 24,000 people with diabetes are dying unnecessarily every year …

Is it just me, or does that sound as if they’re doing it to be deliberately annoying? (You know, as in nitpicking unnecessarily.) Perhaps if we just ignore them they’ll stop it and find something more useful to do instead.

More journalese


6 Responses

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  1. You’ve made my day, Deborah!
    Arise fellow nitpickers, and claim your rightful (although perhaps not necessary) place in the world.

    Maggie Manning

    14/12/2011 at 5:52 pm

    • Hi, Maggie

      Thank you! I know I need to get out more, but I’m glad you liked this. Thanks very much for dropping by to say so.


      14/12/2011 at 5:59 pm

  2. We get the same principle with “too many people killed on Britain’s roads” which surfaces in the papers from time to time in various guises. Makes one wonder:

    “Good News from MOT – right number of people killed on roads last year”
    “Coalition concern – too few people killed on roads last year”.

    Similarly we get stuff like:
    “Widow brutally murdered – for £3.27”

    Dai Hawkins

    14/12/2011 at 6:06 pm

    • Hello, Dai! It’s nice to see you here again.

      Yes, you’re absolutely right in your observations. I know that journalists often have to write stuff in a hurry, but when it’s hanging around online for days on end, there’s no excuse; ridiculous headlines and the like should be amended.

      Thanks for stopping by, Dai. Hope you’re keeping well.


      14/12/2011 at 6:13 pm

  3. I do share your passion for accuracy, brevity, and effective word choices Deborah. To stir this boiling pot further, in all these examples I respond to the orientation toward the avoidance of death, rather than emphasizing living as a preferable alternative. My editorial choice would be more like:
    “24,000 Lives Shortened Needlessly”, with a sub-head if the publication’s style requires it, “Diabetes Report details avoidable deaths”. I think the annual nature of the statistic will be assumed by readers. It can be noted in the body of the article.

    I agree with you about the clumsiness of the label “necessary death”. The better terms are avoidable or preventable, and their opposites.

    Diabetes can be lethal in many different ways. Because the condition is incurable, it must be managed properly to slow the disease process. It’s hard for practitioners to predict which area of the body will be damaged earlier and proceed to an irreversible state. Diabetes causes general stress upon the entire circulatory system from elevated glucose levels. Sometimes that causes strokes or heart attacks, but the long-term deterioration also causes kidney and/or liver failure. Any of those can be fatal. At the second level of statistics, the disease increases the likelihood of death by accidents since it can also cause blindness, impairments to mobility, insensitivity in the hands and feet, and even unawareness of gangrene or osteomyelitis (bone infection). It’s really a ghastly foe. It saddens me that people don’t take it more seriously.

    Invisible Mikey

    14/12/2011 at 6:25 pm

    • Hi, Mikey

      I very much like your emphasis, and think your wording might actually make people sit up and take more notice. You are also right that it could be explained in the body of the copy that these are annual statistics. And ‘preventable’ is also a good alternative.

      Thank you very much for your eloquent summary of the perils of diabetes. It does seem to be a disease that people underestimate and think more trivial than it actually is. That may, in part, be fear, I suppose; we like to bury our heads in the sand.

      Thanks, Mikey, for all these thoughtful comments. Much appreciated.


      14/12/2011 at 7:38 pm

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