Printer Friendly

Some typical linguistic features of English newspaper headlines.

1. Introduction

Media discourse, to which journalistic discourse belongs, represents a paradigm within mass communication.

Integrated in the journalistic discourse, headlines are very specific structural units of any newspaper text. They are the first elements of articles the readers face and, to a great extent, they determine the interpretation of texts. All people who buy newspapers will first glance at the headlines. Headlines impact is even wider than on those who actually buy the newspapers, since they are often displayed and glimpsed everywhere.

The impact of headlines on readers is also strong because certain linguistic features make them memorable. The construction and the ideas generated by the headlines will establish the understanding framework of the whole article. They constitute a kind of "shorthand", a simplification and condensation of ideas.

Headlines play an important role in orienting the reader's attention and interpretation of the facts contained in the article. They are a particularly rich source of information about the field of cultural references, necessary to identify the content of the articles.

It is essential for journalists to implement the most powerful persuasion strategies in the headlines of articles, as very often readers only look through the headlines and stop to read those articles with the most attractive headings.

Headlines may be studied as independent and effective persuasive elements of the texts. They usually contain concise information which has a very persuasive power. Their main functions are: to attract the readers' attention and to give the gist of the story. Headline writers' responsibility is to create headlines able to catch the readers, to have an intriguing factor which should make readers have the curiosity of reading the article. So, headline writers try to catch the reader's eye by using as few words as possible. The language headlines use is, consequently, unusual in a number of ways.

In dealing with English newspaper headlines, readers are always involved in seeking out and "translating" meaning.

English newspaper headlines represent interesting examples of language applicability that have to be doubled by special training in a wide range of skills to deduce the rules of headlines handling and to use these rules in seeking out meanings.

It is important to notice that there are lexical, structural and stylistic characteristics of the discourse of headlines. Brevity is such a defining characteristic. Being very compressed and condensed, popularized in half-understood forms, they are generated and maintained as a rich source of information about the national representations circulating in the society. They create new associations and meanings, a complex of ambiguities and conventions, images and ideas mutually accepted and taken for granted.

Discourse analysts have been attracted by the distinctive linguistic realization of headlines, a "grammatical oddity"?(Fairclough, 1995: 21). Headlines are governed by linguistic rules of their own. The language is elliptical and compressed. Many people have difficulty in understanding them, because they are often incomplete sentences. Very often, the fractured grammar and idiosyncratic vocabulary of English newspaper headlines challenge the understanding even of native speakers. But they are also stimulating challenges to non-native speakers.

We are dealing in our article with some of the most typical linguistic features of English newspaper headlines, the most important grammar exceptions, and their distinctive telegraphic syntax.

2. Noun Phrases

Noun phrases are nominal groups typically comprising a noun surrounded by other words that all, in some way, characterize that noun. They are treated as single grammatical units. In headlines formed of noun phrases, we find a head or a hub, the centre of attraction, and a pre-modification consisting of all the words placed before the head. These words are usually determiners, adjectives and nouns, as in the examples: "Overwhelming Response of Voters" on "Around some Strange, Exotic People". Such headlines appear as incomplete sentences and are quite usual in communication, whole linguistic elements being subject to deletion.

In order to understand this type of headlines that appear as incomplete sentences, it is useful to use WH-questions: from whom? about what? from what? to whom? why?, etc.

By answering such questions, often a whole part of the question sentence is cleared up. In an example of headline like: "Under Pressure from Boss", it is necessary to ask ourselves: what is the boss like? who is under pressure? By asking these questions, the readers can prepare themselves for the article.

This practice helps the brain prepare itself by starting to think about vocabulary related to the subject (a too strict boss, fearful employees, a strained atmosphere).

In the example of headline "Unexpected Visit", the questions the readers can ask themselves are: from whom? why was the visit unexpected? who was visited? And these questions will help readers focus their mind on vocabulary related to relationships (traveling, surprises, important reasons for visits, etc.)

3. Noun strings

Another very common headline form is a string of three, four or more nouns together, or groups of nouns "sandwiched" together, such as: "Country Leader Question Time" or "Landscaping Company Disturbance Regulations".

Noun strings are therefore, a sequence of successive nouns in which the first nouns act as adjectives to modify later nouns. The more words in succession, the harder they are to understand, especially for people who speak English as a foreign language. In these noun strings, readability is difficult, because the words do not appear related by verbs or adjectives. And they are also difficult to understand, because more than three words, ordinarily separate nouns, follow in succession.

In the case of noun strings, it is helpful to try to connect the ideas by reading backward. So, when reading "Country Leader Question Time", we should understand that "It is time we raised some questions for/or about the leader of the country".

Technically speaking, the cluster turns all nouns into adjectives, except for the last noun. The excessive use of long strings of words is an attempt to modify a single word.

These noun strings may sound impressive, but they are rather hard to decipher. The ability of English to link nouns that can behave like adjectives, providing information about other nouns, can lead to ambiguous writing. A headline like: "Woman Killer at Large", could refer to either "a killer of women" or "a woman who kills".

These constructions must be brought under control by eliminating too many descriptive words that are not essential. Therefore, the good technique of reading these headlines backwards consists in breaking them into smaller modifying units, using more prepositional phrases and articles, and even sometimes entire clauses in order to clarify the relationships among the words. And using the reversal technique is generally the best way of "translating" this kind of headlines.

Noun strings are found in English newspaper headlines especially for economy of space; on the other hand, these strings sometimes get too long and difficult to grasp. In the example: "Employee compensation level evaluation procedures", it would have been more easily to say: "Procedures for evaluating the compensation level of employees".

The longer the string, the more it takes a reader unfamiliar with the terms and context to understand the meaning. In the following example: "Underground mine worker safety protection procedures development", we should read and understand it by using the reversal technique: "Developing procedures to protect the safety of workers in underground mines".

Such headlines are difficult to understand, because they pack together nouns that act like modifiers, without doing enough to show the reader the relationship between the parts. Consequently, they leave the reader to do the work of unpacking and sorting. And the readers need to use their imagination for this, too.

4. Structural ellipsis

Trying to underline the omission of certain elements in English newspaper headlines, we mention the process known as ellipsis, a linguistic phenomenon that exists in all languages. By omitting some linguistic items from a headline, the writer leaves out a part of the statement, for the reader to retrieve the whole meaning from the linguistic context, namely the elements surrounding the part omitted.

There are basically two types of ellipsis, structural or textual, and situational. We find mainly the structural ellipsis in headlines. The elements generally omitted there include determiners and elements of compound tenses.

The following headlines are good examples of such omissions: "Man Killed in Accident", where the articles and the verb have been omitted: "A man has been killed in an accident". Similarly, the headline: "President Declares Celebration, ?can be understood as "The President has declared a Celebration", where the articles are dropped and the tense refers to the past. In the example: "US heading for new slump", both the articles and the auxiliary verb 'to be' are omitted, "The US is heading for a new slump".

In headlines, writers try to catch the reader's attention by using as few words as possible. Ellipsis in newspaper headlines is used for a more appropriate economy of time in transmitting a message. This sort of omissions in headlines helps readers to save energy in catching the message, and writers to be economical. They omit elements reasonably retrievable from the context, by having the necessary skills in speaking English.

5. A particular use of verb tenses

There is a special system of using tenses in English newspaper headlines For example; the simple present tense is used when the headline is about something that has already happened. "Passerby sees woman jump" is to be understood as "A Passerby saw/has seen a woman jump". The headline: "Forgotten Brother Appears" must read "A forgotten brother has appeared" [after a long period of time].

The infinitive forms are used to refer to the future. The following headline: "Washington to increase expenditure on nuclear testing", should be understood as "The government of Washington will increase the expenditures on nuclear testing". As well, the headline "Obama to visit Asian Countries" has the meaning "The President Barrack Obama will visit some Asian Countries". The headline "Mayor to open Shopping Mall" has to be read as "The Mayor is going to open a new Shopping Mall".

Passive sentences headlines are formulated without the auxiliary verb, and only with the past participle. For example, the headline: "Black teenagers attacked in race riot" means that some black teenagers "were attacked", and not that they "attacked" somebody. The headline "Missing teenager found unharmed" means "The missing teenager is/was found unharmed". The headline "Man Killed in Accident" reads "A man has been killed in an accident".

Present participles are used instead of the present continuous tense, to denote something that is changing or is happening at present. And the auxiliary verb is always left out. For example: "Professors Protesting Pay Cuts", means "The professors are protesting against the reduction of their salaries".

6. Short words

The use of short words for long ones is another typical feature of headlines. Fitted into very narrow columns, headlines represent a very difficult task for the editors. Long words are more common and unattractive. Therefore, small ones have to be used and this has caused a journalistic language of its own, which is called "Headline English", a very distinctive vocabulary.

Generally, monosyllabic verbs and nouns, shorter words, sound more dramatically than ordinary English words. They have also to be immediately comprehensible to the readers of the newspapers. In reports of crimes, for instance, people are not "arrested", they are "held", thus saving four letters of space. That is why short words are very much used in newspaper headlines.

Some of the short words are unusual in ordinary language:

   soar meaning "rise" in headlines ('Coffee Prices Soar")? curb
   meaning "limit" ("Go-ahead for Water Curbs"); pledge meaning
   "promise" ("PM Pledges Backing for Europe"); axe meaning "dismiss",
   "reduce" or "cancel" ("Jobs Axe Threatens Thousands"); air meaning
   "discuss openly" ("Town Council Airs its Objections"), and many

Other short words are used in special meanings which they do not often have in ordinary English:

   bid meaning "attempt", "Bid to Oust PM"; "Sri Lanka Peace Bid");
   drive meaning "united effort" ("Drive to Save Water"); move meaning
   "measures, steps toward a particular result" ("Moves to Create more
   Jobs"? "Move to bring back Death Penalty'?; back meaning "support"
   ("Prince Vows to Back Family"); mission meaning "delegation,
   official group" ("Shots Fired at UN Mission"); lag meaning "delay"
   ("Flimsy Excuses Cause Blood Donation Lag").

Some of the short words are used not only because they are short, but also because they sound very dramatic, are very intriguing or emotionally colored:

   blaze meaning "fire" ("Three die in Hotel Blaze"); slam meaning
   "criticize" ("Scottish Housewife slams Gov Law"); clash; strife
   meaning "dispute" ("Students in clash with Police"); key meaning
   "vital; important" ("Key Witness Disappears"); rap meaning
   "reprimand" ("Blair's Son Drunk Rap"); grill meaning "torture by
   questioning" ("Military Chiefs Grill Suspected Spy"); bar meaning
   "exclude; forbid" ("Dinner to bar some Reporters"); boost meaning
   "increase" ("Gov plan to Boost Exports"); ordeal meaning "painful
   experience" ("Pilot in British Plane Ordeal"); probe meaning
   "investigate" (Private Health Price Fixers Facing Probe"); quiz
   meaning "questioning" ("Fan faces quiz").

All these recurring linguistic features enable communication to take place among the members of a community; by providing them with a code; therefore a communication based on a shared code.

Headlines intrigue and awaken interest but they can also give the reader the intellectual satisfaction of successfully decoding them. And they also reinforce the sense of belonging to a community.

An exercise like deciphering headlines is a very necessary argument in our need to grasp the gist of newspaper articles.


Agnes, Yves, and Jean-Michel, Croissandeau. (1988), Lire de journal pour comprendre et expliquer les mecanismes de la presse ecrite, Paris: Lobies.

Bell, Allan. (1991), The Language of News Media, Oxford: Blackwell.

Bloor, Thomas, and Bloor, Meriel. (2004), The functional analysis of English, 2nd Ed., London: Edward Arnold.

Chebran, Yves. (1996), Get Smart in Seduction, London: Oval Projects Ltd.

Fairclough, Norman. (1995), Media Discourse, London: Arnold.

Halliday, Michael. (2004), Introduction to functional grammar, 3rd Ed., London: Hodder Arnold.

Hicks, Wynford. Holmes, Tim. (2002), Subediting for Journalists, London and NY: Routlege.

Hodgson, F.W. (1996), Modern Newspaper Practice, Oxford: Focal Press. *** (1995), Key Words in the Media, Birmingham: Harper Collins Publishers.

Kinneavy, James L. (1971),A Theory of Discourse: The Aims of Discourse, Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice Hall International.

Land, Geoffrey. (1989), What the Papers Say, London: Longman.

Mardh, Ingrid. (1980, Headlinese: On Grammar of English Front Page Headlines, Lund: Liberlaromedel/Gleerup.

Zinser, William. (2001), On writing well, 6th ed., New York: Harper Collins.


Spiru Haret University
COPYRIGHT 2014 Addleton Academic Publishers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Marcoci, Sanda
Publication:Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2014
Previous Article:A historical approach to the use of military specialized terminology.
Next Article:La traduction dans la presse alternative.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters