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

"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).

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).

Examples and Observations

  • "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)
  • "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)
  • "[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)
  • "Plane Too Low to the Ground, Crash Probe Told"
    (Headline quoted by John Russial in Strategic Copy Editing. Guilford, 2004)
  • "Police: Middletown Man Hides Crack In His Buttocks"
    (Headline in the Hartford Courant, March 8, 2013)
  • "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)
  • Short Words in Headlinese: Thinnernyms
    - "Headlinese might be defined as words that no human being would utter in context but that headline writers use because they fit into tight spaces."
    (John Russial, Strategic Copy Editing. Guilford Press, 2004)
    - "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)
    - "[B]revity is a whip-bearing dominatrix in the discipline of headline writing."
    (William Safire, "Hotting Up." The New York Times Magazine, June 10, 2007)
  • Life on MarsWar of the Words
    "This is a headline from 'The Friday Review' Section of The Independent of 21 August 1998. It introduces an article reviewing a fierce scientific debate about the possibility of life on Mars. Headline writers use a wide range of devices to create a very specific style, which is sometimes called 'headlinese.' Their one-liners must put in a nutshell the main point of the news story they relate to and at the same time capture the reader's attention. . . . [I]f we pad out the above headline, we might get something like 'The life on Mars debate remains a war of words.' It will be noticed that the headline as it stands contains no verbs: this is replaced by the dash (—). The structure has the effect of all the focus being on the balanced phrases, 'Life on Mars' and 'War of the Words.'"
    (Peter Verdonk, Stylistics. Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • Telegraphic Ellipsis
    "A form of written language which typically uses telegraphic ellipsis is the newspaper headline. . . .
    "Grammatical clues present in the headlines themselves . . . interact with contextual information from the setting to encode retrievable meaning; This process is essentially cataphoric in that headlines refer forward to the main body of the text, a fact exploited by editors and sub-editors on a daily basis to encourage headline-spotters to read on."
    (Peter Wilson, Mind The Gap: Ellipsis and Stylistic Variation in Spoken and Written English., 2000. Rpt. Routledge, 2014)
  • Noun Stacking in Headlines
    "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)
  • "A colleague points out: 'It sometimes seems that any time anyone writes a piece about Africa (or, in fact, dark-skinned people), the first (and usually last) headline everyone comes up with is Heart of Darkness. It's unimaginative, and boring, but more importantly perpetuates lazy colonial attitudes, ideas of ignorance and benightedness, etc.'"
    (David Marsh, "Mind Your Language." The Guardian, February 14, 2010)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Headlinese?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-headlinese-1690921. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). 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 January 27, 2021).