Bill Lehane

Journalist and writer

A probing quiz of headlinese

Recent murmurs on Twitter have reminded me of the long-standing concerns among more discerning news readers over the use of terms like probe and quiz in news reports.

One of the troubles with both phrases is that neither is incorrect, no matter how much readers – and many journalists – may loathe them.

Oxford Dictionaries uses examples from news to define quiz as a modifier and a verb, offering “judges face gay sex scandal quiz” and “four men have been quizzed about the murder” respectively.

Similarly, probe is listed as both a noun and verb, albeit with the proviso that the noun denotes “a thorough investigation into a crime or other matter” and that the verb means to “explore or examine (something), especially with the hands or an instrument” [emphasis added].

During my time as an online news journalist at RTÉ, the quandary arose frequently, particularly when making concurrent updates to the Aertel teletext news service where design constraints dictate headlines be exactly 33 characters long (a task both more difficult and more fun than you might think).

If you ask me, probe is fine in a headline but on the side of inappropriate for the body text of a broadsheet news outlet, whatever the medium. Ditto quiz although I really don’t like that one, it makes a murder investigation sound like a game of bingo. If there’s no space and you’ve tried everything else, leave it in and wash your hands afterwards. 🙂

I would however draw the line at the use of probe in stories about rape or molestation – child abuse probe is simply an abomination of a phrase.

In tabloids, of course, you will find both probe and quiz everywhere, but those that read them are rarely concerned with matters of style.

Speaking of being non-concerné, I have the good fortune in my current guise as an oil journalist to use the phrase probe freely and liberally without the least thought for inappropriateness.

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