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I'm seeing an increasing number of headlines where a comma is used in place of the word 'and'.

Mother enraged after suspect walks free after attacking her, one-year-old baby in a parking lot

The article clarifies that the suspect attacked her AND her baby. Would it be so hard to use 'and'? Or is this just an error?

China stocks notch trillion-dollar gain on hopes of reopening, better U.S. ties

North Korea fires artillery and flies jets near border as South Korea, U.S. pledge cooperation

These only make sense if the final comma means 'and'.

I have a lot of trouble parsing these sentences. These examples come from today's headlines on Fox News, Reuters, and Reuters. Both presumably have editorial boards, style guides, and a review process, meaning that a collective decision was been made that this is OK, or even preferred. I want to say that (shudder) the occasional NYTimes article has done this too, but couldn't find one today.

Where did this new trend come from? Is it British? From another language? Texting? Autocorrect? Character limits?

I know the ampersand is a special character in HTML, which could cause display problems on poorly coded websites. This could cause some fear among advertisers and publishers when considering it. Still, a comma is a terrible substitute. If you can't write out a-n-d or use &, at least pick a symbol that doesn't change the grammar, like +. What am I missing? Why haven't I noticed this before?

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    Two issues. Headlinese has its own rules, as real estate is pricey. & the ampersand does not substitute for and in most cases, only to pair a pair: On & off switch, H&M Fashion, Field & Stream magazine. Nov 4, 2022 at 15:34
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    Hello, Glen. Not the same issue, but zero punctuation before non-direct-speech quotes is the far less dated choice: << I'm seeing an increasing number of headlines where a comma is used in place of the word "and." >> (I'd also use single inverted commas and put the full stop outside them, but then I'm a Brit.) Nov 4, 2022 at 16:33
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    Thanks @EdwinAshworth. I made all the edits you suggested. Thank you, those all make sense, but I didn't know they were 'legal'. I studied Grammar in the 1980's and I guess it shows. Nov 4, 2022 at 17:10
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    Yes, these are headlines, and one important consideration for the writer of headlines is to make them brief. Nonetheless, this usage of the comma is unusual and distinctive, and the OP has shown their working so far, in that they've noticed that the comma is used instead of "and". So there is something that needs explaining. I voted to re-open.
    – Rosie F
    Nov 4, 2022 at 20:26
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    Great question... this is a very particular aspect of headlinese. Normal speech doesn't replace 'and' with a pause (which is what the comma represents. But in trying to minimize length a comma takes up less space in print and... and this is what a good answer could address... how come a pause is sort of OK replacement for 'and'
    – Mitch
    Nov 5, 2022 at 14:16

2 Answers 2

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The origin of the headline comma is at least decades old and not original to digital media.

Headlines don't follow all the conventions of standard written sentences. They can omit articles and sometimes even verbs. They stick to present tense even for events that technically happened in the past. (Ross Collins covers these differences in "Writing Headlines for Print.") All of this is in service of keeping the headline punchy and under a character count; the Associated Press limits headlines to 60 characters (AP Stylebook, 56th ed., p. 136).

A comma performs another kind of abbreviation in a headline, connecting two ideas without a linking word or phrase (often and). Despite the recent examples, this is not new. Roy Greenslade complained about the practice in The Guardian article "Headline Commas, Who Needs Them?" in 2008. Already Greenslade says "things have gotten better in the past decade," suggesting that headline commas go back at least to the 1990s and may be a longstanding if contested feature in journalism. I decided to examine if the commas in headlines were older even than Greenslade suggested.

For instance, a quick skim of headlines from 1990 (before newspaper websites) in the Atlanta Journal Constitution yielded these headlines (paywalled on ProQuest):

  • Loggers, Environmentalists Square off at Ballot Box (31 December 1990, A3)
  • Laura Gordy: Thamyris Co-Fpunder Planning to Expand Repertory, Visibility (30 December 1990, K4)
  • Plant Now, Enjoy Fruits of Your Labor for Years (30 December 1990, R2)
  • Alpharetta: GA. 400 Brings Opportunity, Jobs to North Fulton (30 December 1990, SS6)

The frequency of these examples suggests that comma use wasn't a rare or errant feature but something newspapers often did to create brief and punchy headlines.

Was it just American? I did the same time period search for the Jerusalem Post (again, ProQuest) and found these headlines with commas:

  • New Director, New Services at Post Office (31 December 1990, 02)
  • Yugoslavia, Poland Reach Final of Soccer Tourney (31 December 1990, 09)
  • Great Mozart, Poor Mahler (31 December 1990, 08)
  • Druse Councils Set to Shut Down over Finances, 'Empty Promises' (31 December 1990, 02)

So the practice isn't only from American headline writers, at least in 1990. It's possible specific editors or regions had different headline practices, but the comma usage even then seemed widespread enough to appear in a few articles per day in sampled publications.

So what you're seeing now may be a relative increase in usage of the comma, but its roots are at least decades old, and thus not solely attributable to autocorrect or another digital feature.

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My take is that since a comma is used to separate the items in a list, the implication is that it substitutes for an addition. Thus: "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". We comfortably understand that there are three, distinct particles. (The final comma before the conjunction, the Oxford comma, would apparently oppose this, but I don't feel the need to defend so controversial a practice.) Headliners can therefore happily use a comma to substitute a comma in place of 'and' in a forum where space is at a premium, and comprehension at a glance is required.

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