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Newspaper/news article headlines usually have different syntax rules, for example

  1. No copula. North Korea trip 'successful'
  2. Past events written in present. Qantas cancels flight out of frozen Heathrow
  3. Predictions written with infinitive. Britain's 'crossbow cannibal' to die in jail
  4. Very often not in complete sentence.
  5. No indefinite/definite articles. Ivory Coast Faction Squeezes UN Force
  6. Using a comma instead of "and". Romania, Bulgaria face delay in joining Schengen.

Why these rules and are there any other rules?

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Newspapers and tabloids tend to be an "impulse buy" in my neck of the woods; thus, a short snappy attention-grabbing headline counts a lot for a newspaper/tabloid to be looked at and (hopefully) bought. In short, "brevity is the soul of wit." –  user730 Dec 22 '10 at 4:45
Related answer. –  Kosmonaut Dec 22 '10 at 15:23
Brian: added your comment to the question –  Louis Rhys Dec 22 '10 at 16:54
I like the self-descriptiveness of "Very often not in complete sentence." –  NickC Jun 24 '11 at 16:19
#3 is really just #1, since the copula + infinitive construction is a type of future: “Britain’s ‘crossbow cannibal’ [is] to die in jail”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 13 at 15:57

4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

This is ellipsis, but more importantly, English headlines follow special conventions that are, by and large, consistent across publications. Headlines have evolved to maximize information output and minimize space, because this has been optimal for newspapers (until the Internet age, at least — but now the conventions are ingrained into the world of journalism, needed or not).

This headline style guide covers the conventions in great detail.

Relevant quotes:

In many headlines, as with the example immediately above (…loophole [is] ‘too big’), the verb “to be” is not necessary. It can be used, but in most cases should be avoided.

Present tense, please: Use present tense for immediate past information, past tense for past perfect, and future tense for coming events.

Avoid the use of the articles a, an and the unless they are needed for clarity. (Otherwise, their use generally is considered padding.)

The comma, in addition to its normal use, can take on the work of the word “and.”

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Nice answer. Couple of comments: note that the comma-for-and convention is largely a US thing in my experience (used to be hardly seen in the UK if at all, though it does seem to be starting to come in) - and that the need for economy has not gone away with the dawn of the internet, as there is still a desire to cram lots of stories on a single page :) –  psmears May 11 '11 at 14:16
Also, in internet terms, you need to keep the keywords upfront on the title (and the URL). Skipping "and" helps with it. –  Victor Sep 5 '14 at 2:15
Wikipedia calls this "headlinese." –  Kevin Jan 8 at 16:39
I always found the comma-as-and thing kind of disruptive. "Romania [pause] Bulgaria Face Delay In Joining Schengen" Why not just use an ampersand? *"Romania & Bulgaria Face Delay In Joining Schengen" –  Nick Bedford Feb 25 at 6:24

That is called ellipsis, omitting words that can be inferred. Journalists use such strong ellipsis because they want compact headlines. The present tense is used here to make a story seem more "actual", more lively: that is called the historic present. Besides this liveliness, the fact that it is often shorter is practical for journalists. The rules for ellipsis are, as far as I know, no more specific than that, in a headline, anything that can be easily inferred may be left out. Sometimes journalists leave out too much, confusing the reader.

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Also note that for headlines, brevity is calculated in ems/ens, not characters. Thus using a comma instead of "and" or an ampersand (point 6 of the question): an ampersand requires spaces on either side and, depending on the font, is at least an en wide itself; while a comma needs only one space, and has almost no width itself (especially with kerning set properly). –  Marthaª May 11 '11 at 13:51
@Martha: Good point. –  Cerberus May 11 '11 at 14:14

Another name for this is "telescopic writing" which is also used on street signs.

The reason is to use less space on the page. I wouldn't call these 'rules' but rather common patterns of writing.

Some other patterns:

  • reduced use of punctuation
  • noun modifiers: "Poker advocate: Estimated $100M-$500M in refunds for online players" instead of "Advocate of poker..."
  • giving a name or noun to introduce, then a detail after a colon. Officials: No immediate al-Qaeda threat to U.S. (instead of saying "Officials say...")
  • dropping helper verbs: "Weak dollar helping U.S. profits" instead of " helping..."
  • removing verb altogether "Google's animated tribute to dance pioneer Martha Graham" instead of "Google gives animated tribute..."
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I submit some other examples of headlinese: (1) Dropping of the genitive -'s. Again, this saves space. This practice is also exceedingly common in technical English (I wish I knew why), where the resulting strings of nouns can be almost unintelligible. (2) Use of the name of a country as its adjective: "France PM says ..." (the reason for this completely evades me). (3) Illogical use of "after" for things that happen during an accident: "Boy, 11, hurt after car crash", which is not only illogical, it is actually longer than "hurt IN car crash". (4) Use of "sick" for "injured" ("Skier sick after fall" meaning "Skier injured in fall") - which may be to save space in a headline, except that one meets it often in the body of an article too. I confess I made my examples up, but I think them true.

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Actually, Stephen F does give a reason ("this saves space"), just as Mitch does in his answer ("to use less space on the page"). And just as Mitch, writing four months after the question was posted, focuses the vast majority of his answer on other unusual but characteristic patterns that appear in headlines, so does Stephen F, writing four years later, in his answer. I think that both submissions are interesting additions to a Q&A that is in no danger of being overrun with irrelevant answers. –  Sven Yargs Jan 13 at 21:43

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