When did The New York Times start talking like Yoda, and when did we begin to notice it? On it, the Twitter account @NYTPrepositions is: "For Prepositional Phrases, a Starring Role in New York Times Headlines," @yayitsrob & @NickCastele explain of their suddenly viral joint project, which is, like @NYTOnIt, not affiliated with the paper. (We do love to celebrate, censure, parse out, analyze, and generally consider our New York Times headlines.)
Prepositional Lady began pre-Sandy, in mid-October. Since that point, we've gotten headlines like, in reverse chronology, "On Twitter, Sifting Through Falsehoods in Critical Times," "In This Corner, a Much-Needed Distraction," "In Red Hook, Short on Time, and Kale," and "For Evacuees, Panic, or Nonchalance" (among plenty of others, hurricane and non-hurricane headlines alike). So is this, like, a thing? In New York Times Headlines, Prepositions Are Wont to Appear? It's enough of a thing to generate a tribute Twitter account, at the very least. And a Twitter tribute to that. The #NYTBooks hashtag is being used to churn out hundreds of re-prepositioned New York Times-style book titles. Slate called it "the hashtag of the day." Well, then!
It is kind of great, spawning stuff like this:
When We Talk About Love, What Do We Talk About? #NYTbooks— Chris Heller (@c_heller) November 1, 2012
And there are plenty, plenty more where those came from.
#nytbooks is pretty much exactly what the world needed right now. Pity no one south of 39th st can read it.— Ben Casselman (@bencasselman) November 1, 2012
So, who's behind this magical Twitter that's bringing joy to stressed-out New Yorkers? Rob Meyer and Nick Castele, two twentysomething friends who met at Northwestern, who began to tweet their favorite Times headlines at each other "at some point in the past few weeks or months," Castele told me, using hashtags like #prepositionalheadlinewatch. Castele works at WCPN, Cleveland's public radio station, while Rob, also a contributor to The Atlantic, is a senior at Northwestern. "A couple weeks ago, Rob went ahead and reserved @NYTPrepositions. It's been gaining steam ever since." Rob and Nick both have to agree a headline is tweet-worthy, and once they agree, it's "sent back into the Twitterverse."
As for the "rules" (because not everyone's using prepositions first in their book titles, I noticed), Castele says they're figuring it out as they go. "We're looking for NYT headlines that take a mundane or silly idea and, through the power of the front-loaded prepositional phrase, make the idea seem sort of grand. We really just look for headlines that make us laugh," he said. In the process of the inversion, the headlines "imbue the subject with an air of importance—whether it's something serious like a presidential campaign or something commonplace like kale." There are a few different forms of inverted Times headlines, he noted: "Some start with prepositional phrases, and others start with dependent clauses. For the time being we're trying to avoid the clauses and focus on the phrases. But we're always open to change."
He adds that this is an homage, not a mockery: "Just to be clear—I kind of like them. I write Times-style headlines probably more often than I should. Not sure if Rob feels the same way, though."
As for the viral success of #NYTBooks and #NYTMovies (in the same vein, different media: "On the Orient Express, a Murder"), he credits Dan Amira's post at Daily Intel with getting those two hashtags going. "I've made a couple weak contributions. But the time has finally come to close that tab on my browser and get back to work," he says. There's the rub, ah. Update: Mother Jones' Timothy Murphy is getting the Twitter cred for starting the #NYTBooks and #NYTMovies hashtags, apparently, which he did "shortly after #ff'ing @NYTPrepositions," Castele tells us.
We've reached out to New York Times Standards Editor Philip B. Corbett for comment on the tribute Twitter and New York Times headline standards, and will update when he responds.
Update 2: Corbett tells us, "The book titles are pretty funny; I hadn’t seen those before. As for the actual headlines—yes, we have noticed that sometimes headline writers fall back on certain devices rather frequently, and some of my colleagues have occasionally issued reminders about this. In certain cases, starting with a prepositional phrase can be effective for emphasis. But when you start seeing more than one on the same page, it’s probably time to dial back."