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Can You Fix This Headline?

Reader Lionel B. Dyck has provided us with a great, weird headline to improve. It’s from “The Jerusalem Post.” Yes, newspapers are a special breed of writing, and headlines must be concise. But this one cuts so many words that it hurts my logical head. How would you clarify it?


Do you see where the headline goes wrong?


An article with the headline: "French placed shoot dead man near Paris after stabbing attempt"


The wording of the headline suggests that the police shot a dead man. It also vaguely hints that they shot him after stabbing him was not successful. Of course, you would never consider that meaning, but the words do lead you to that possibility.

The first sentence of the article makes the meaning clear.

How would you revise the headline? Please post your version. I will post mine after you get a chance to think about it. My revision is 10 words, just like the original headline. However, I think they make the meaning clear.

This odd headline points me toward two lessons:

  1. Do not try to be so concise that you lose your reader.
  2. Let your writing sit, whenever possible, before sending it out. Weird word combinations like “shoot dead man” stand out when you see them with a fresh eye.

Have fun rewriting!

Thank you, Lionel, for the good (bad) example.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

15 comments on “Can You Fix This Headline?”

  • Would-be stabber shot dead near Paris by French police
    French police shot would-be stabber dead near Paris

    “Would-be stabber” makes it clear that the attempt failed. The “shoot dead man” is problematic and can be avoided by using stabber instead. I also think that it’s unnecessary to emphasize the gender of the stabber.

    I think the passive voice works here because it emphasizes the original perpetrator.

    There’s also a significant difference in attitude to lethal police shootings between the US and Europe. In most parts of Europe, lethal violence is a last resort, only condoned when there’s no other choice and when it’s necessary to protect other people and it’s often seen as a necessary evil or even a failure of procedure. It’s certainly nothing to be proud of or brag about. That’s why I think the French police would prefer the headline in the passive voice.

  • I like Maria’s comment. The only thing I might change is “French” as in “French police”. One can generally assume that it would be local/domestic police involved in such an incident and not police from another country.

  • My favourite was a story in the British press about “ladies of the night” in Italy taking some kind of legal dispute to the Vatican:

    “Prostitutes Appeal To Pope.”

  • Stabber fatally shot by police near Paris.

    The article says one of the victims was severely injured, so it sounds like more than an “attempted” stabbing. Also, the article first says BFM TV and then BFTM TV. It sounds like Reuters needs an editor.

  • Thank you, Maria, Kate, Nick, Anita, Taryn, and Tina. I appreciate your interesting ideas.

    Here’s my version:

    –French police shoot man dead near Paris after stabbing attack

    As you can see, I used “shoot man dead” rather than “shoot dead man.” I also called it a stabbing attack rather than a stabbing attempt. After all, one victim was injured severely.

    Maria, I am glad to have read your thoughts about police shootings in Europe. With those in mind, and considering Kate’s comment, I would change my headline this way:

    –Police shoot man dead near Paris after stabbing attack

    Maria, I would likely not use “would-be” because the attacker did inflict serious harm, as Anita noted. But I would use it if the individual had done no damage.

    Taryn, I like to avoid passive verbs, but your sentence does work.

    Tina, I would prefer to begin with the main news–the police shooting–but I like your use of “suspect.”

    Nick, thanks for the humor!


  • Hi Patty,

    Thanks for joining in. I’m not sure about “stabs several people.” That’s only because the article says that the man “tried to stab several people.” Was he lunging and missing them (with one exception)? We don’t know.

    Consider using “is killed” rather than “gets killed.” It’s shorter for a headline. Also, “gets” seems informal in this situation. It suggests that the attacker got himself killed, which though true, feels informal, at least to me.

    What do you think?


  • Hello Adeyi,

    I like your use of “Fatally Shot” to replace “Shot Dead.” I think I would move “by French Police” next to “Shot.” “Near Paris by French Police” doesn’t seem like the best flow.

    Still, I would prefer your wording with an active voice verb: “French Police Fatally Shoot Attempted Stabber Near Paris.” The active voice verb removes any concern about the placement of a prepositional phrase with “by.”

    Thanks for participating!


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