Gotta watch those hyphens

rogersgeorge on October 15th, 2011

Here’s a headline from The Daily Galaxy, a science feed from the Discovery Channel.

Galaxy Devouring Black Holes -1st Evidence Found

by Casey Kazan Daily Galaxy Editorial Staff
I enjoy reading this feed for its science content. Occasionally it gives me some material about good writing, too, mainly examples of what not to do. They should hire a better proofreader, harrumpf. Of course, maybe I’m just really picky. Here’s the picture that went with the article:

The alternate text for the picture is "Supermassive_Black_Hole_001." Presumably it's inside the bright spot at the center of this galaxy.

On to the writing lesson of the day. How do you interpret this headline? Is it about a galaxy that’s devouring black holes? Or is it about black holes that devour galaxies? Headlines must be as terse as possible, but a hyphen doesn’t take up much space, and here it makes a difference, especially to people who don’t know anything about cosmology. The way the headline is constructed you have a galaxy devouring some black holes. In a headline you can leave out things like helping verbs, so you’d naturally supply “is” and get “is devouring.” “Okay,” says the layman, what’s wrong with that? Sounds pretty exciting.” The headline is perfectly grammatical that way, too. Trouble is, that’s not what the writer wants to say.
You can interpret the headline another way, but first put a hyphen between the first two words:

Galaxy-Devouring Black Holes -1st Evidence Found

The hyphen makes the two words into a compound adjective describing the black holes. Now we have the black holes doing the devouring. That’s a completely different meaning! If you don’t have enough cosmology under your belt to know already, go read the article. You should have no trouble figuring out which interpretation is intended.

The headline has two other errors. One is editorial, and I suspect Mr. Kazan didn’t write the headline, because the headline contains an unscientific exaggeration. Read the article and you will see the exaggeration. The other error involves the typography. I leave identifying both errors as an exercise for the reader. If you can identify both, pat yourself on the back. If you give up, make a comment and I’ll tell all.

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