I have trouble understanding headlines because they abuse ellipsis. Two examples:

  1. "Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan To Awkwardly Hug, High Five For Next Three Months"
  2. "Scores Dead as Fire Sweeps Through Nightclub in Brazil"

In both cases, I don't understand what is happening. What are Romney and Ryan doing for the next three months? What does high five have to do with it? Are they going to hug each other? Did they hug already? I thought The Onion, being a satirical newspaper, was trying to make the most unreadable headline possible to mock the way other papers usually write. But then I came across the example from NY Times and noticed journalists really write that way. Who or what is scoring dead? What does is it mean to "score dead"? I get the feeling the phrase is wrong and that it should be something like "Fire scores dead as it sweeps through nightclub".

I try to read newspapers everyday and I've even checked the answers for a similar question before asking, but I still can't get used to the style of headlines.

So, what do those two headlines mean? And what can I do to improve my reading ability in this specific area?

  • 3
    @BeetleTheNeato: If you're reading to improve your fluency in English, you should just get into the habit of ignoring things like newspaper headlines, chapter headings in books, etc. There is often a "form of grammar" involved in such contexts, but it's likely to be extremely subtle, and even though most native speakers would be able to identify certain constructions as "unlikely, even in a headline", only the professionals in that business have a very clear idea of what does and what doesn't "pass muster". Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 17:32
  • @FumbleFingers, What do you mean by "Form of Grammer" and "Pass Muster" here? I could not get it!
    – Mistu4u
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 19:58
  • @Mistu4u: To pass muster to meet the required standard. By form of grammar, I mean, for example, omitting the word and after hug, and are after scores in your two examples. Those omissions are perfectly normal in headlines, but wouldn't be acceptable in most other contexts. Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 20:17
  • 2
    "Foot heads arms body", The Times, 1986. Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 6:25

5 Answers 5

  1. "Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan to Awkwardly Hug, High Five" was The Onion’s snarky way of insinuating that when Romney selected Ryan as his running mate he condemned both of them— stuffy, constrained, powerful middle-aged white men who are not even ideologically compatible —to three months of pretending close friendship and demonstrating their credentials as "ordinary guys" by practising the conventional gestures of male intimacy, with which they will not be comfortable.

  2. Scores here is not a verb but a plural noun which in the singular means the quantity 20. The number of dead is not certain at the time of writing; it is apparently not so many that it could be appropriately approximated by "Hundreds", but is more than would be implied by "dozens", so the Times selects the intermediate value "scores".

How do you learn to read headlines better? Basically, you have to know the language and the culture they're referring to better—which isn’t very helpful. Happily, it’s not really important to be a fluent reader of headlines.

  • Thanks. I didn't know "scores" could be used as noun. Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 17:37
  • This is what I don't understand. If I am not able to understand headline of a newspaper, how am I supposed to be considered to be good in English if I can read the story anyways? This means I lack in understanding the language properly.
    – Mistu4u
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 19:56
  • 4
    @Mistu4u As OP says, headlines "abuse ellipsis" - they leave a lot out - so they're harder to interpret. Headlines are more like a puzzle than real English, even for native speakers. Don't worry about "lacking understanding" - I have been using English at a very high level for sixty-plus years and I still have much to learn every day. Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 20:05

Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan To Awkwardly Hug, High Five For Next Three Months.

The ellipsis is with a comma instead of an and.

Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan To Awkwardly Hug and High Five For Next Three Months.


Scores Dead as Fire Sweeps Through Nightclub in Brazil

The ellipsis is in the verb of the first clause, and scores of what.

Scores of people are Dead as Fire Sweeps Through a Nightclub in Brazil

I can't say I consider either of these to be abuse of ellipsis. Replacing an and with a comma is very common even in less telegraphed text, and I would assume that any headline about lots of deaths was about people unless it specified otherwise.

And what can I do to improve my reading ability in this specific area?

I think the main issue was with lack of vocabulary. Your comments suggests you didn't know what scores means, and your difficulty came from that. General improvement of vocabulary will help, and more so will not assuming you know every sense of a word. Would you have understood "Many Dead as Fire Sweeps Through Nightclub in Brazil"? If you would understand that similar (but less detailed) headline, then you would have understood the first if you'd looked up score in a dictionary.


Your first headline comes from The Onion, a faux-news site devoted to satire. I suspect the photo was taken at about the time that Romney chose Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. So the significant result of that action is that they will spend the next three months congratulating each other.

The second one is fairly straightforward. A number of people were killed by a fire that quickly engulfed a nightclub.

How can you understand the headlines better? Read the article they refer to. The purpose of the headline is to get your attention and compel you to do just that. Also, know something about the reporting source. It may be intentionally parodying the news, like the Onion does, or it may have its own biases.


To improve your understanding of severely elided dialects of English such as used headlines and point form summaries, you have to be able to imagine all the likely possiblities for which words have been removed, and then choose the most likely interpretation which is consistent with your knowledge of the world or the specific situation being described.

Go through the exercise of adding back the missing words, including all dropped helping verbs, conjunctions, prepositions and articles like a and the:

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are to awkwardly hug and high-five each other for the next three months.

Scores of people are dead, as a fire sweeps through a nightclub in Brazil.

For instance, we know that scores such as game scores or musical scores cannot be dead. Fires kill people, and "scores of people" is a phrase for many people.

We also have to know that high five is both a noun and a verb. We can say that two people high fived if they slapped each other's hands together, high in the air. If we put in each other after high five, it becomes clear that it's a verb.

Note how a comma can stand for an elided and. Normally we only use commas when there are three or more items: apples, bananas and oranges. We do not write or speak a list of two items without a conjunction: apples, oranges. But in a headline, this is done to save space: oranges, bananas to go up due to california weather. The confusing point is that the comma in hug, high-five is just such an elided and.

If you put in the missing words and still doesn't make sense, then try to think carefully of other possibilities.


'Score' is also a word that means 20, as in some older people saying their age as '3-score and 10, to indicate they're 70.

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/score lists numerous meanings.

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