What Is Headlinese?

Why Headlines Are Almost Never Sentences

Illustration of a front page of an old newspaper

JDawnInk / Getty Images

"Headlinese" is an informal term for the abbreviated style of newspaper headlines, a register characterized by short words, abbreviations, cliches, noun stackingwordplaypresent-tense verbs, and ellipses. The Oxford English and Spanish online dictionary defines headlinese simply as, "The condensed, elliptical, or sensationalist style of language characteristic of (especially newspaper) headlines."

Definition and Usage

Headlines are found in newspapers, magazines, journal articles, and online publications. They are meant to succinctly convey the contents of a story in a way that makes readers want to "dig in for more," as the Associated Press describes the term. The short, snappy style can lead to memorable headlines, sometimes more interesting than the stories they describe. But the omission of words including verbs, articles, and the like sometimes leads to headlines that convey unintended meanings or are difficult to decipher.

Headlinese Grammar Explained

Headlinese employs grammar, or a lack thereof, to get readers to pay attention.

"'Headlinese combinations are not in themselves sentences,' said linguist Otto Jespersen, 'and often cannot be directly supplemented so as to form articulate sentences: they move, as it were, on the fringe of ordinary grammar.'" — A Modern English Grammar, vol. 7, 1949.

Jespersen, a language professor known for his expertise in syntax and language development, stated that headlinese is not really grammatical writing. Yet readers have accepted this form of communication, even though it would not be considered grammatically correct in a high school composition paper.

Andy Bodle, a journalist and scriptwriter who has written for The Guardian and other news outlets, notes that despite the lack of grammar headline writers use in crafting pithy statements, the headlinese they employ is generally clear to readers.

"Nonetheless, says British journalist Andy Bodle, "[m]ost of the time the meaning of headlines is quite clear (to native English speakers, anyway). They generally achieve their aim of provoking interest without misrepresenting the facts too grievously." — The Guardian, Dec. 4, 2014.

How to Use

In the following example, a writer familiar with the art of using headlinese explains how to use it effectively. Ironically, headlinese would never be acceptable, grammatically, in everyday writing. But, the whole point of effective headlinese is that it generally does not follow the pattern of everyday conversation and grammatical writing.

"Perhaps a copy editor's best test for headlinese is the question: 'How often do I hear this word used in ordinary conversation with its headline meaning?' If hardly ever, the word is headlinese." — John Bremner, "Words on Words." Columbia University Press, 1980.

Here, Bremner notes that headlinese has a style of its own—a way of stating things that you would never hear in normal conversation. In the same way, headlinese disposes of "little" words that are often important in conversation but that headline writers are forced to omit when struggling to squeeze the information they have to convey into restrictive spaces.

Common Mistakes

In the quest to fit punchy phrases into tight spaces, headline writers sometimes use words that, together, either don't make sense or have unintended meanings.

Ambiguity

"In their quest for concision, writers of newspaper headlines are ... inveterate sweepers away of little words, and the dust they kick up can lead to some amusing ambiguities. Legendary headlines from years past (some of which verge on the mythical) include 'Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel,' 'MacArthur Flies Back to Front' and 'Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans.' The Columbia Journalism Review even published two anthologies of ambiguous headlinese in the 1980s, with the classic titles Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim and Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge." — Ben Zimmer, "Crash Blossoms." The New York Times, Jan. 10, 2010.

Zimmer explains here that headlines often conjure up double entendres, such as the one that sought to convey that giant waves (from the ocean) had made their way through an area called Queen Mary's Funnel, but which could also conjure up an image of a giant waving as it passed through that particular area.

Additionally, some headlines just don't make sense, their intended meaning having been swept away in the careless use of headlinese.

Lost Meaning

"[W]hen the folks at Variety toss around insider lingo and cryptic headlinese like 'B.O. Sweet for Chocolat' and 'Helming Double for Soderbergh' it's hard to tell what the heck they're talking about."—Scott Veale, "Word for Word/Variety 'Slanguage.'" —The New York Times, Feb. 25, 2001

At other times, the use of headlinese produces headlines that say nothing because they don't provide any substantive information.

Lost Subject

"Man Shoots Pictures of Wolf Chasing Him on Motorcycle in Canada
BANF, Alberta – A Canadian man says he was chased by a gray wolf while he was riding a motorcycle in British Columbia... " — Headline and lead at FoxNews.com, June 21, 2013.

So, was the wolf operating the motorcycle or the man? Readers are left to chuckle, but it's clear the headline writer simply grabbed the first line of the story, shortened it using headlinese, and came up with a story topper that could be a one-liner on a late-night talk show.

Too Vague or Obvious

"Plane Too Low to the Ground, Crash Probe Told" — Headline quoted by John Russial, "Strategic Copy Editing." Guilford, 2004.

Obviously, the plane was "too low to the ground" if it crashed into the ground (as opposed to a building, for example.) The question is what else, or what specifically, caused the crash: engine failure, hitting a bird, a bomb, something else? The headline writer, lost in headlinese, never says.

Other times, headlinese produces headlines that are simply too crude in an effort to pull readers in.

Too Lewd

"Police: Middletown Man Hides Crack In His Buttocks" — Headline in the Hartford Courant, Mar. 8, 2013.

Here, the headlinese actually portrays the information accurately—and in a way that is likely to grab readers' attention. But, it is too crude a statement for most readers, and too graphic. It would have been better if the headlinese had conveyed the information in a more mundane fashion. Some headlines are unintentionally humorous.

Features of Headlinese

Headlinese is, essentially, a language unto itself: one that uses terms and phrases that few English speakers would utter.

Specialized Wording

"The grandest, oldest and arguably finest headline tradition of all, of course, is the use of short words. Instead of disagreeing, people 'clash.' Rather than competing, they 'vie.' Instead of divisions, we have 'rifts.' And instead of a Mexico president promising reforms of the policing system in an effort to mollify people’s anger over the murder of 43 students, we get 'Mexico president vows police reform in bid to quell massacre rage.' I was inordinately pleased with myself for coining the word thinnernym to describe these short words, although I’ve since been informed that I’m not the first to do so." — Andy Bodle, "Sub Ire as Hacks Slash Word Length: Getting the Skinny on Thinnernyms." The Guardian, Dec. 4, 2014.

The British have apparently come up with a clever term for the grammar headlinese employs when it uses the shortest possible versions of a word: "thinnernyms" (thinner synonyms). Headlinese has to use its own set of rules, terms, and phrases in order to fit story titles into sometimes impossibly tight spaces. This also produces the issue of noun stacking.

Stacking Nouns

"A string of unleavened nouns will form a whole headline. Three nouns stuck cheek by jowl was once the limit, but now four is standard. Some months ago two tabloids gave their front pages to SCHOOL COACH CRASH DRAMA and SCHOOL OUTING COACH HORROR and a week or two later one of them achieved five with SCHOOL BUS BELTS SAFETY VICTORY. There is some loss of seriousness here, as if anyone cared." — Kingsley Amis, The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage. HarperCollins, 1997.

Here, tabloid headlinese seems to have created a sort of competition to see which headline could manage to stack the most nouns—bereft of any verbs, articles, commas, or other helpful grammar and punctuation devices—leading to an almost undecipherable headline, unless a school bus could actually belt someone and achieve a safety victory.

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Headlinese?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-headlinese-1690921. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 1). What Is Headlinese? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-headlinese-1690921 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Headlinese?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-headlinese-1690921 (accessed July 30, 2021).