Facebook did WHAT?!

November 25, 2008 •

Today’s ‘Marketing Pilgrim’ announced:

Facebook Note Removes British Juror from Trial

WHO removed her?! Unless Facebook has really extended its reach recently, I’m pretty sure IT didn’t remove the juror. I think it’s far more likely a judge did that!

The problem with this headline is that it’s written in the active voice but has no ‘Actor’. The Actor is the person or thing that actually does something. Clearly that’s the judge, here, not the Facebook note.

So how does a copywriter make such a fundamental error? Probably because of a conflict between a grammar rule and a usability rule. The rules?

  1. Grammar rule: Headlines should be active
  2. Usability rule: Make the first two words count

So why the conflict?

Let me explain. The conventional grammarian wisdom says that headlines should be in the form:

Actor does X to Object

Now in the Facebook story, the Actor is clearly the judge and the Object is clearly the juror. Facebook didn’t DO nothin’! (Kinda ironic, huh?)

But if we followed this rule, we’d end up with:

“Judge Removes British Juror from Trial for Posting Facebook Note”
“Judge Removes Juror from Trial Because of Facebook Note.”

Too long, right?

What’s more, what would online visitors see if they were just scanning with the typical F-pattern? Probably just:

“Judge Removes”
“Judge Removes British”
“Judge Removes Juror”

In a legal publication that’d be fine, but in ‘Marketing Pilgrim’, the key subject is Facebook. And in the Active voice construction above, Facebook is shunted right to the end.

As you can see, the copywriter (or copy-editor) is in a bit of a bind.

Their solution? Simply bung Facebook in at the start of the sentence, in place of the Actor, and hope everyone understands what you mean! In order to avoid breaking a usability rule, they’ve broken a grammar rule, making their headline a muddy mess.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that grammar’s more important than usability. To the contrary. I believe the only solution WAS to break a grammar rule. Just not the one they broke.

I think the headline should have read something like this.

“Facebook Juror Removed from Trial”

Yes, I know it’s passive (Object has X done to it), and worse yet, there’s no Actor, but at least it gets the eye-candy up front, and it’s direct and easy to understand.

The reality is that sometimes, passive headlines just work better. Especially online. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe leading web usability specialist, Jakob Nielsen:

“Selecting the first 2 words for your page titles is probably the highest-impact ROI-boosting design decision you make in a Web project. Front-loading important keywords trumps most other design considerations.” (Passive Voice Is Redeemed For Web Headings)

Wrap up

The truth is, most readers probably COULD understand the Facebook headline in its current form… if they tried hard enough. But headlines are like ads; if they make the audience work, they usually fail.

The moral to this story? If you’re going to break a rule, break the right one. The one that’ll simply offend a few prescriptive grammarians, not the one that’ll stop readers from clicking through.

Happy copywriting!

PS. What do you think the headline SHOULD have been? Please comment your suggestions.

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Angus wrote on November 25th, 2008

Hi Glenn I agree with everything you say except for one point: there's no "grammar rule" against using the passive voice! The passive voice is a basic part of English grammar. No grammarian in the world would dispute that. Avoiding it is just a usage preference (one that shouldn't always be followed, as your example shows). Anyway, I've been enjoying the blog!

comment avatar
Glenn (Owner) wrote on November 25th, 2008

Hi Angus. Right you are! Chose the wrong word. It's more of 'an accepted copywriting guideline'...

comment avatar
Usable Words Blog — How I was taught to stop worrying and love the passive voice wrote on December 4th, 2008

[...] of the passive voice for a long time, but I was prompted into action by a post from Glenn at the Divine Write Copywriting Blog. Glenn points out a headline that borders on nonsensical - “Facebook Note Removes Juror from [...]

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