What Is Headlinese?

Why Headlines Are Almost Never Sentences

Illustration of a front page of an old newspaper
JDawnInk/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

"Headlinese" is an informal term for the abbreviated style of newspaper headlines—a register characterized by short words, abbreviations, cliches, noun stackingword playpresent-tense verbs, and ellipsis. The Oxford English and Spanish online dictionary defines headlinese simply as "The condensed, elliptical, or sensationalist style of language characteristic of (especially newspaper) headlines." And definitions.net says that the term means "using the abbreviated style of headline writers."

Generally, headlines sit atop newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, among others. They are meant to succinctly convey what is in the story in a way that is compelling enough to motivate readers to "to dig in for more," as the Associated Press—perhaps the nation's most prolific conveyer of headlines as well as purveyor of advice about how to write them—describes the term. The short, snappy style required of headlines—headlinese—can lead to some memorable pieces of writing, sometimes more so than the stories they describe. But, the omission of words—verbs, articles, and the like—that speakers and even writers would use for clarity in real life, sometimes leads to headlinese that conveys unintended meanings, double entendres, and indecipherable statements.

Headlinese Explanations

The following explanations describe how headlinese employs grammar, or a lack thereof.

Grammar

" '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.

Here we see that Jespersen, a language professor known for his expertise in syntax and language development who died in the mid-1940s, stated decades ago that headlinese is not really grammatical writing. Yet throughout the decades since he made this statement, readers have accepted this form of communication, even though it would not be considered grammatically acceptable in a high school composition paper.

Clarity

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 [UK], December 4, 2014.

Here, Bodle, a journalist and scriptwriter, who has written for the Guardian [UK], the Times [UK], the BBC, and ABC, notes that despite the lack of grammar headline writers use in crafting these pithy statements, the headlinese they employ is generally clear to readers.

Observations

In the following examples, writers familiar with the art of using headlinese, explain the meaning of the term.

Not Conversational

"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 often an anathema to headline writers struggling to squeeze the information they have to convey into a highly restricted space.

No Small Words

"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, January 10, 2010.

Zimmer explains here how "legendary" headlines often conjure up double entendres, such as one that sought to convey the information that giant waves (from the ocean) 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.

Examples

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

Meaning Lost

"[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 are far too obvious.

Ground Causes Crash

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

Obviously, the plan 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, a terrorist act? The headline writer, lost in headlinese, never says. Other times, headlinese produces headlines that are simply too crude.

Too Lewd

"Police: Middletown Man Hides Crack In His Buttocks"—Headline in the Hartford Courant, March 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. And, then there are the examples of headlinese that unintentionally produce humorous and unintended meanings.

Cycling Wolf

"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.

Not Really English

The basic underpinning of headlinese is that it is, essentially, a language unto itself: one that uses terms and phrases that no English-speaker would utter.

Clashing and Vying

"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 [UK], December 4, 2014.

The British have apparently come up with a clever term for this new form of grammar, or non-grammar, that headlinese employs: "thinnernyms." This seems to be a perceptive reference to the fact that headlinese has to use its own set of rules, terms, and phrases in order to fit story toppers into sometimes impossibly tight spaces. Indeed, this produces the odd 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 or any offending verbs, articles, commas, or other helpful grammatical and punctuation devices—leading to an almost undecipherable headline: unless a school bus could actually belt someone and achieve a safety victory.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Headlinese?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-headlinese-1690921. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, April 17). 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 May 16, 2021).