Sometimes a headline is technically correct, but one word in it causes a lot of heartburn.

Such was the case when The Post used the word “motley” to describe the GOP presidential candidates in a headline on the “jump,” or continuation page, of a front-page story on the Iowa caucuses that ran on Jan. 3.

The story was a preview of that day’s caucuses and the fact that Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul appeared to be fighting for the top three places. The headline on page A7 read: “Iowa Republican’s choice appears to be among a motley trio”.

So several readers wrote in to protest that the headline indicated The Post’s true “liberal” colors.

Now motley is a perfectly good word. It describes a set of people or things with many incongruous elements, kind of like eclectic or heterogeneous. But over the years it seems to have acquired a pejorative, even unkempt aspect in common usage, and that’s no comment on the big-hair, heavy metal band Motley Crue, which technically has umlauts over the first ‘o’ and the ‘u.’

Indeed, Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and investment banker, Santorum, an up-from-the bootstraps former senator from Pennsylvania, and Ron Paul, an obstetrician congressman from Texas, are motley. They’re not alike in their politics or personalities.

Anne Ferguson-Rohrer, multiplatform editing chief at The Post, said there was no negative intent in the headline. “Nothing more was meant by the choice of word, though we do see how some people might read more into it, and that would cause us to pause before using it again anytime soon.”

Good call.

And now for some thoughts on puns in headlines.

In a front-page story on the Supreme Court by Post Reporter Robert Barnes on January 9, the headline used an interesting pun. The story was about an upcoming oral argument before the court about whether the Federal Communications Commission should still be regulating indecency on television. In the story, Barnes used the phrase “the increasing coarseness of television broadcasts” referring to vulgar words and content.
The headline writer spun off coarseness to write this: “Broadcast TV: Will court stay the coarse?”

The ombudsman got gotcha e-mails saying this was a blatant example of the low copy editing standards at The Post; it should have been “stay the course.”

No, the headline writer was reaching for a pun. Kind of a clever one, in fact. Stay, of course, means “stop” in legal language. So this headline could mean stop the indecency or coarse content. Or, in the  “stay the course” formulation, it could mean the court might continue to allow the FCC to regulate prime time television’s indecency. For me it works and attracted attention to the story.

For some readers though it didn’t. I say Live and Let Live on this one. But it’s still better to reach for a pun than not.

Finally, on first glance, a Post front-page headline looked like it contained French, but it certainly wasn’t English.

This was an A1 story on Sunday January 8 about the Saturday night debate in New Hampshire of the GOP presidential candidates.

The headline, in some print editions that went to subscribers that night, read: “Debate sees few swings at Romney. Other candidates lexchange [sic] jabs.”

Now, in French l’exchange means an exchange, a discourse, a trade. But there was no apostrophe and no italics indicating a foreign word. This one is a bit of a mystery, according to copy editors. They saw “exchange” in the computer version of the story for The Post’s second of three print editions that night, and a page proof shows that too. But somewhere along the line that extraneous ‘l’ got inserted.

The pressroom noticed it, stopped the presses, and fixed it, but still 85,000 copies of the second edition went out with the mistake before it was fixed.