Future in Headlinese

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Funny headline on a Yahoo news story: "Ford stops using Takata air bag inflators in future vehicles". To me that says that they used to use Takata air bags in future vehicles. How did that work?

I first posted this on Facebook. Christine Behme (who's German) jokingly responded that maybe it was written by a German, since Germans often mistakenly omit 'will' in English.

That made me realize how it might have happened.  Headlinese does regularly omit 'will', and this may have been a conversion of a perfectly good sentence with 'will stop' in it into headlinese. But they should have used 'to stop' – also normal headlinese, and unambiguously future – instead of 'stops'; then it would be perfectly fine.

Then my son Morriss commented, "If "stops" changes to "will stop" then future becomes redundant. But I think the headline was written this way because auto manufacturers always have production going on the current model year, and then several future model years planned out. So I take it that it really means that they will continue to use Takata air bags on the current model year, but will stop using them on future model year vehicles."

To which I replied, "That also sounds right, almost: but if the decision has been made, would you be able to say (as a full sentence – not talking about headlines now) "Ford has stopped using Tanaka air bags on future cars"? By your account, shouldn't that also be ok?" To which Morriss replied, "Yes." To which I replied, "Morriss — cool! OK, if I stare at it long enough, I think I can too! But if I were their copy-editor, I would undoubtedly look for another way (I think the clearest and simplest will use 'to stop': by itself in a headline, or 'has decided to stop' in a full sentence.)

In the meantime, Richard Krummerich commented, "Headlines are frequently written by printers motivated primarily by space considerations." To which I replied, "Of course, but there's a real grammar of Headlinese. Linguists sometimes comment on some of the differences between Reuters headline grammar and American news sources' headline grammar. And sometimes it really does come out 'wrong', and I've noticed that sometimes when I comment on something that strikes me as wrong in a headline form, it gets revised soon after (not because of me, of course — one of their own must have spotted it.)"

And by then I realized that maybe this was after all interesting enough to put on Language Log, so here it is.



  1. Brian Buccola said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 11:42 am

    I share your intuition. However, I also feel there is a slight contrast between "Ford stops using" and the arguably more appropriate "Ford will stop using" / "Ford to stop using", namely that "stops" implies that a definite decision–and maybe even concrete steps–has (have) already been made (taken), whereas "will stop" and "to stop" are a bit less committal on Ford's part. I guess this is because "stops" in headlinese stands for "has stopped", which is rather eventive and hence evocative of some real completed action.

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 11:50 am

    Having googled for a version of the story it sounds like Ford isn't even saying anything as definite as e.g. "we're going to stop using Takata products after the 2017 model year is over," but is rather saying that brand-new models currently under development will be designed from the get-go to assume airbags from a supplier other than Takata, but models currently being manufactured may continue to use them into the indefinite future. (My old Honda is having its allegedly-unsafe Takata airbag replaced today.)

  3. Vasha said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 11:53 am

    It strikes me that there's a challenge for second language learners in sub-styles that have a distinct grammar, like headlinese or baby-talk. I doubt that most grammatical reference works include guidance on them.

  4. richard krummerich said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 11:57 am

    Look at today's headlines on the Pfizer – Allegron merger. Reuters is much more of an editorial lead. Writers were always trying to get on over on the editors. Before the 1949 World Series when Dodger 3rd baseman Billy cox was injured the headline in the Herald Tribune bulldog edition was "Dodgers facing Yankees with Cox out" It took the Editor an hour to figure out he had been had and kill it for the second edition.

  5. Nick said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

    It seems to me that with the suggestion that there are always multiple model years under development, the headline is correct. You noted that it implies that they used to use Takata airbags in future vehicles, and that may be the case. A future model year currently under development may include Takata airbags, but now they changed the airbag manufactuerer. Hence, they used to use Takata airbags in the designs for future vehicles.

  6. unekdoud said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 2:36 pm

    An example sentence which shows the "future vehicles" ambiguity:
    "He talks about global events in 2017."
    The ambiguity remains even with "will talk" or "to talk".

  7. Ken Miner said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 2:38 pm

    Maybe I'm missing something, but given that the headline is (as they tend to be) in the so-called "literary present", it looks fine. Think of it as a point in a plot summary: "Then, in 2015, Ford stops using Takata air bag inflators in future vehicles."

  8. Chris Waigl said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 4:04 pm

    My native language is German, too, and my idiomaticity checker only tingled a little bit, even though it's usually quite good (at least for a non-native speaker). So I started wondering about the analysis of "X stops using Y" in headlinese – what is implied about the temporal order of the report and the action reported (to stop using Y)? Obviously it isn't a strict coincidence. It could be one of three:

    • an approximate coincidence ("X is currently in the process of ceasing the practice of using Y")
    • referring to the past ("X has stopped using Y just recently, and that's newsworthy")
    • referring to the future ("X has made the decision to stop using Y and will implement it in practice at some specified or unspecified date or as soon as some other conditions are fulfilled")

    The headline presumes that the third is an option. So next, I went googling for headlines and found:
    • Quite a few that are neither, but place the phrase inside a hypothetical or an unspecified future time ("Z hopes that X stops using Y", "… if X stops using Y", "… when X stops using Y".)
    • Recent past examples, as in Times Of India: "Farmer stops using drain water to grow veggies" Article starts: "NAVI MUMBAI: Locals were delighted on Saturday to see that the motor pump and pipe, used for supplying dirty stormwater drain of Nerul to a farm growing leafy vegetables, were removed."
    • But also some examples that are located in the future, or at least at the future edge of the approximate present, as in: "Johnsonville Sausage stops using Klement's 'backyard brat' phrase" ("The Sheboygan Falls company says it has agreed to stop using the term and that it dropped the phrase following a cease-and-desist notification from Klement last May." ), which is a slightly ambiguous example and "Willits stops future herbicide use in wetlands" ("At the Aug. 26 Willits City Council meeting, Public Works Director Rod Wilburn proposed changing the mitigation practices to focus on mechanically removing the weeds without following up with herbicides."), which is the closest I found to your example.

    Not many of those, though.

  9. MattF said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 4:30 pm

    It seems to me that attributing 'future-ness' to the event referred to in headline is wrong. Ford has made a decision in the present; and the decision is about their future use of Takata airbags.

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 5:43 pm

    "Headlines are frequently written by printers … "? In my experience, they're written by editors.

  11. ohwilleke said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 7:18 pm

    Like Ken Miner, I didn't see anything confusing about the headline nor did it appear grammatically incorrect to my ear.

    I think this is because the default assumption is that a model will be constructed in the same way indefinitely as long as a model is produced.

  12. Ken Miner said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 7:53 pm

    @ ohwilleke Yes (if I follow you), and in the headline the model includes the word "future", which appears to be what is giving people trouble. But it's no different from "future" in for example (again using the literary present) "In 1934 John meets his future wife."

  13. John said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 8:27 pm

    In my personal headlinese, I would say "Future Fords won't use Takata air bag inflators"

  14. Ray said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 9:35 pm

    would changing 'in' to 'for' make things clearer?

    "Ford stops using Takata air bag inflators for future vehicles"

    ("in future" has a subtle, half-suggestion of 'going forward,' and implicates both ford and the vehicles as the object of change. "for future" more decisively makes the vehicles the object of change.)

  15. Philip said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 5:16 am

    Reversing the time sequence, I used to have a similar problem with news stories in the aftermath of the political break-up of Yugoslavia. A phrase quite common in TV news programmes at that time was: "In the former Yugoslavia today, x did y.'

    These phrases burned my logic circuits. How anyone TODAY could be in the former Yugoslavia (which no longer existed) was beyond me.

  16. Adrian Bailey said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 6:20 am

    In English present forms are generally used for future and past, including I'm going, I'll go and I've gone. So you can't analyse the temporality of a text simply by looking at the tense of the verb. All the following are grammatically correct: He's doing it tomorrow. He was doing it tomorrow. He'll have done it by tomorrow. He'll have done it yesterday.

  17. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 8:14 am

    @Adrian Bailey:
    "He was doing it tomorrow" and "He'll have done it yesterday" seem like non-standard English to me. And I don't see "I've gone" and "He'll have done it by tomorrow" as present forms. From what I learned many years aga, the first is perfect tense and the second is future perfect.

  18. mae said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 8:25 am

    Another (not exactly relevant, sorry) automotive mystery headline from the LA Times: "Petersen Automotive Museum soups up its exhibits and cherries out its exterior" — the article didn't give me a clue what "cherries out" meant nor did I find any clues by a simple google search. Closest hint: there was something red on the exterior.

  19. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 9:41 am

    It means to make a car look brand-new, from the adjectival use of "cherry" to mean a virgin. In the used car business, a "cherry" is a car that's as good as new … or at least it appears to be.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 10:20 am

    Ken Miner: But it's no different from "future" in for example (again using the literary present) "In 1934 John meets his future wife."

    To me it's quite different. In your example, Mary existed and John met her, and we know they married later, so "future wife" is an accurate description of her. But in the headline, the cars don't exist yet; nevertheless Ford was using Takata inflators in them until it just now stopped.

    I can imagine a Ford engineer saying, "We're using Takata inflators in the 2018s," but that's with a shared context that a reader of headlines doesn't have.

    According to J. W. Brewer, "future cars" here means "cars being designed", not "cars that will be produced". Maybe "Ford models in design won't use Takata air bag inflators" would say what is meant. (However, cynics say that a laughable, unclear, or even misleading headline that gets you to read the article has succeeded.)

  21. Rodger C said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 11:29 am

    To me "He'll have done it yesterday" might be used to mean "He presumably did it yesterday," but that's another matter.

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