Rantings of a sub-editor

January 4, 2011

Who reaped what, eh?

Filed under: reap,word choice — substuff @ 4:14 pm

The mark of a truly bad headline is not that you burst into laughter or shake your head in disgust, but that you are left scratching your head in incomprehension. That’s where I was left by this particular piece of Which?ery.

Excess costs reap benefits for insurers

At times like this, a Japanese expression unearths itself in my brain. “Imi wa?” (literally “the meaning is?”) And this headline, on one of our own press releases, had me wondering what the imi wa for quite some time. It’s all back to front, innit.

It is, literally (yes, I say, literally) awful.

1. This is a horrible abuse of the word “reap”. People can reap, but costs cannot. And you can’t reap by proxy – ie, if costs could reap, they would be doing it for themselves, not for insurers. Insurers can, however, reap the benefits of excess costs. Yes.

2. Even if you can get beyond reap, there’s a string of three verbs or potential verbs in the middle (costs, reap, benefits). And if words that can be read as both nouns and verbs don’t confuse a reader, I don’t know what does. Put three together and you’re damned.

From the OED:

Receive as the consequence of one’s own or others’ actions.

So you reap what you sow. And you can also reap what others sow. But the sowing does not reap for you, oh no.



  1. Ooh, that is one grim headline. And is there a risk of ambiguity if talking about ‘excess’ in an insurance context?

    Comment by Tom Freeman — January 4, 2011 @ 4:43 pm | Reply

    • Yes, indeed. In fact, this is a story about voluntary excesses. I subbed the news version, so I already knew that – but of course to the pleasantly uninitiated, it just means “extra”. Make that point number three in reasons to hate this headline!

      Comment by substuff — January 4, 2011 @ 4:50 pm | Reply

  2. It’s a very lazy cliche of a headline, although, for me, the worst lazy-cliche headlines are ones featuring the phrase “ring the changes”, often used in football stories when a manager swaps a few players around. Except that the phrase “ring the changes” is a bell-ringing term that means going through all the permutations of bells before ending up back where you started. Football managers may end up ringing the changes over the course of a few matches, but not just by leaving Wayne Rooney out of one side.

    Pet peeve over.

    Comment by Paddy — January 4, 2011 @ 9:38 pm | Reply

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