Puns and Wordplay: How Much Is Too Much?

By Jack Limpert

This morning the Washington Post had a front page story from Brooklyn, Iowa, by Philip Rucker with this lede: “The battle for control of the U.S. Senate could come down to a dispute between two neighbors in this heartland hamlet over four plump, wander-prone hens.”

One of the neighbors is Bruce Braley, a congressman and the Democratic nominee for an open U.S. Senate seat. The other is Pauline Hampton, whose hens have wandered onto Braley’s vacation property at Holiday Lake. A lawyer for the area’s homeowner’s association says Braley filed a formal complaint against Hampton and her hens and said he wanted to “avoid a litigious situation.”

Braley, Rucker writes, now risks coming across “as an arrogant trial lawyer-turned-politician who’s anything but Iowa nice.”

The head on the story: “In Iowa race, a spat comes home to roost.”

The deck: “Democratic Senate hopeful’s tiff over a neighbor’s chickens feeds into GOP attacks.”

Mike and I both think the Post has become livelier under Marty Baron, who has edited the paper for 19 months. This morning I emailed Mike, pointing out a great piece in Style by Robin Givhan and a lively headline on page one—the one about a spat coming home to roost. His reply:

“I’m generally wary of pun headines or wordplay headlines—the Post loves them—but this was a good one.

“My wariness arises from a belief that if the newspaper doesn’t take the news seriously, the reader can justifiably ask why should he. I know I’m in a minority here.

“Plus smart-ass headlines forget that real people with real problems are involved in the news. Journalism often gets crass.”

Point made, and I agree with Mike that cleverness in journalism is overrated, often goes too far, and either mystifies or irritates readers. I sat in on lots of magazine headline meetings; it was fun to be irreverent and clever. Then it was the editor’s job to publish a head and deck that told the reader enough of what the story was about and didn’t overdo being clever.







  1. John Corcoran Jr says

    Print is not the only area where puns run rampant. TV has been known to offend. Back when I worked in the TV news dodge, I’d just sort of let them run off my back until I was sitting in our newsroom and saw a tease for a story that read. “A young teenager got the shock of his life today. We’ll tell you about it coming up.”

    As I temporarily owned a couple of teens back then I watched the story. Turned out it was about a teen who had come in contact with a power line, was severely burned and nearly died. I marched over to the newswriter area asked, “Who wrote the story for the teen who got shocked?” A writer raised his hand.

    I sat down next to him and in a calm voice said, “How would you like it if your kid was almost electrocuted and some writer teased it with a bad pun?”

    Message received, he rewrote the tease for future shows.

    I had no authority, no right to go changing someone’s show, but sometimes you just get fed up.

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