It’s Headlinese to Me


Since the 2016 presidential election, many of us have been devouring the latest news, keeping a close watch on unfolding events. How does an article get our attention? Through the headline, of course. A headline must be concise in conveying the gist of the news story or article that follows. But did you know that the compressed style of headlines, which often defies conventional grammar, adheres to certain rules and even has a fun name?

To write a headline that is not English at all but its own language, follow the syntactic conventions of “headlinese”:

  1. Don’t use articles (a/an, the). (“Woman Vandalizes Car for Six Hours”)
  2. Omit any form of the verb to be. (“ISIS Plots Discovered”)
  3. Replace the past tense with the simple present tense. (“Natalie Portman Slams Hollywood”)
  4. Indicate the future tense using the infinitive. (“Sheriff to Block Access to Dakota Campsite”)
  5. String nouns together flagrantly. (“College Football Bowl Projections”)
  6. Replace and with a comma. (“Wildfires Destroy Homes, Hotels”)
  7. Refer to people by last name only. (“Obama Offers Bleak Assessment of Situation in Syria”)
  8. Use contractions, abbreviations, shorthand, and short words. (“3 Dead in Calif. After Thanksgiving Charity Dinner”)

Speaking of short words, below is a sampling of petite verbs commonly used to save space in headlines. You may notice that these terms show up relatively infrequently in everyday language.

  • Curb: control, restrain, rein in, suppress
  • Dub: label, call, nickname, designate
  • Hail: cheer, acclaim, welcome, approve
  • Ink: sign one’s name to
  • Laud: praise, extol, glorify, commend
  • Mar: spoil, damage, ruin, impair
  • Nix: veto, reject, cancel, put an end to
  • Quiz: examine, test, question, interrogate
  • Vie: compete, fight, contend, strive
  • Vow: swear, promise, pledge, declare

The constraints of headlinese can lead to humorous uncertainties of meaning, some of them legendary:

  • “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim”
  • “Red Tape Holds up New Bridge”
  • “MacArthur Flies Back to Front”
  • “Iraqi Head Seeks Arms”
  • “Two Convicts Evade Noose, Jury Hung”
  • “Stolen Painting Found by Tree”
  • “Prostitutes Appeal to Pope”
  • “Dealers Will Hear Car Talk at Noon”
  • “Lack of Brains Hinders Research”
  • “NJ Judge to Rule on Nude Beach”

I wish I encountered such amusingly ambiguous headlines more often. It might make the news more palatable.

4 thoughts on “It’s Headlinese to Me

  1. juliecgardner

    I love these – and I wonder if the writers of Headlinese sometimes purposefully create the humorous lines (like the one at the top about fruit and jam). You’d think they’d HAVE to see it, right?


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