Headline words

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The current xkcd:

The mouseover title: "Roundly-condemned headlinese initiative shuttered indefinitely."

Our Headlinese and Crash blossoms categories have been almost entirely about syntactic ambiguity, often in headlines from British publications:

“Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms”
"Police officer jailed for attacking members of the public found dead"
"Knife crime: St John Ambulance to teach teens to help stab victims."
"Is Fish Heart Healthy Food? It Depends"
etc. etc.

But the cited strip makes the point that there's a certain (mostly American?) headline style that's largely based on word choice. This reminds of the examples of genre variation that I've been using for decades in the Sociolinguistics lecture notes for Linguistics 001 :

Language also varies according to its context of use. Here are three short passages on related topics. One is from an informational article; another passage is from an advertisement; and another is an excerpt from a telephone conversation in the Switchboard corpus. Can you tell which is which?

    1. So, it 's just so complicated anymore, I think. People outlive their savings. And, with medicine being the way it is, you're extending life where sometimes the quality of living has gone down and they 're not necessarily enjoying life anymore. I think the retirement home idea's a nice idea. To go and find older people with similar interests and someplace to stay, because like if your spouse died, so you're all alone, it'd be nice to go someplace with people similar to you. To have friends.
    2. People who have to leave their homes and families and move into a nursing home experience feelings of grief and loss. During this time of change, these people are experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their lives. Not only is it difficult for the person making the move, but also for that person's family and friends.
    3. Situated in a park-like setting on a quiet residential street, Alder House offers private and semi-private rooms that are tastefully furnished and decorated. Cheerful colors, plants, flowers and decor, all those special touches that remind one of home are evident everywhere. Alder House's beautiful surroundings combined with our commitment to excellence creates a caring environment that you so richly deserve.

Obviously, (1) is the phone conversation, (2) is the article, and (3) is the ad. Can you imagine hearing someone say (2) or (3) in a conversation? Can you imagine (1) as part of a magazine article (other than as a quotation)?

Passage (1) has many features that tend to mark it as conversational, including the use of "just so" as an intensifier, the use of "like if" as a connective, and the impersonal "you".

Passage (2), by contrast, is clearly marked as written language: can you imagine someone saying to you in conversation "During this time of change, these people are experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their lives"?

Passage (3) has several turns of phrase that smell of ad-speak: "all those special touches that remind one of home;" "a caring environment that you so richly deserve."

How would you re-work the content of (1) to make it suitable in a formal written essay? How would you re-work the content of (2) or (3) to make it believable as dialogue?


  1. Laura Morland said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 8:44 am

    Is this an assignment? If so, may I request an extension?

  2. Carl said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 9:09 am

    There’s also a weird politeese in which the word “do” somehow becomes a softener, as in “we do ask you to keep your seatbelt fastened at all times.”

  3. David Marjanović said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 9:14 am

    The mouseover title: "Roundly-condemned headlinese initiative shuttered indefinitely."

    Next: "Cartoonist slain over kerfluffle". Slay is so much shorter than murder, and slain even than killed, that American headline writers squeeze it into as many headlines as possible…

  4. Ben said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 9:51 am

    The first word in the ad gives it away. Those long relative clauses at the beginning of sentences don't occur in speech. And the word "situated" strikes me as too bland to occur in prose that was trying to be good reading. But it's perfectly functional in an ad.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 10:22 am

    One leading factor driving classic headlinese was the desire to minimize character count, since physical space on the physical newspaper page (with headlines being in larger font size than text) was always a scarce and valuable commodity. I am curious as to whether the migration of news distribution from hard-copy to the web, which largely lacks that constraint, will ultimately change the style or whether as an established genre it will outlive the specific conditions that gave rise to it. Certainly the difference between web and paper presentation probably has a lot to do with the increasing vogue for clickbaitish headlines even from sources once considered respectable-to-staid.

    By chance, I am reminded by some social-media software that six years ago today I posted two different headlines (from the two leading NYC tabloids) describing the same underlying news story, which could be used for some sort of Ling 001 (or "110a" in my idiolect …) compare-and-contrast assignment:

    1. "Curator called 'Lady Gaga of the art world' accused of biting woman on transatlantic flight"

    2. "Tiara-wearing lunatic bites passenger on JFK-bound flight"

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 10:22 am

    David Marjanović is surely right that headline lexicon is partly due to space constraints, but I don't think this is just an American thing. British headline writers are very fond of fury, for example.

  7. James said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 1:51 pm

    Isn't positive polarity "anymore" also a big tipoff in the phone conversation? I don't think I've ever seen that written. (Nor very often spoken, but I do know some positive "anymore" speakers.)

  8. Cervantes said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 1:52 pm

    I'm not going to do the assignment, because I'm already doing something similar — translating material from a scholarly journal article into a book chapter for a more general readership. It's revealed a lot to me about scholarly writing, including a lot it turns out I don't like. The style has to be leaden and the voice from nowhere. I'm not just talking about the agent-free passive voice, which I already try not to use. (And yes I know the passive voice doesn't require that there be no agent but in the academic writing convention it does.) Academic writing is also very high context, e.g. it assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader, so translating it into ordinary English requires me to think a lot about how to unpack and explain, which often provides more insight and specificity than the packed concept actually contains.It's an exercise I recommend.

  9. Mark P said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 5:14 pm

    I worked at a newspaper back in the 1970’s. Laying out pages, allocating space and writing a headline to fit that space was kind of a word game for editors. The same person was usually responsible for the same pages every day, so it was not unusual to see the same word in headlines on those pages over a period of weeks. Stories were often similar enough that it worked. For example, there were often stories about the state legislature. “Solon” was a choice word. When was the last time you saw that word used for a member of the legislature? Editors found a good, short word, and used it. Fitting the space was definitely a major consideration.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 5:52 pm

    Any state legislator is by definition a "pol," which is a shorter headlinese lexeme than "solon," although perhaps from a slightly less elevated register?

  11. Mark P said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 6:23 pm

    Headlines look better if they are balanced. A word can be too short for its space as well as too long.

  12. Joshua K. said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 1:46 am

    @J.W. Brewer: One might usually think that if one took a headline, and replaced one of the words with its opposite, the headline might take on a very different meaning. But once I saw two of the supermarket headlines have headlines during the same week, differing only by the use of one word and its opposite, yet with similar implications:

    "Michael Jordan Marriage Crisis"
    "Michael Jordan Divorce Crisis"

  13. bks said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 8:04 am

    The three blurbs can be categorized just from the first six words in each.

  14. Francois Lang said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 9:57 am

    > So, it 's just so complicated anymore, I think.

    Does that strike anyone else as odd? I'd always thought of "anymore" as a negative-polarity item, but it's been years since I formally studies linguistics.

  15. Martyn Cornell said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 10:31 am

    "the migration of news distribution from hard-copy to the web, which largely lacks that constraint …" Google only displays the first 50–60 characters of a title tag, so web news siteheads are generally written to be no more than 60 charcers long.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 12:17 pm

    Francois — "So, it 's just so complicated anymore, I think". Yes, very odd indeed. In my idiolect it would have to read "it 's just so complicated these days {or "today", or "nowadays", or <whatever>)".

  17. Doug said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 12:44 pm

    @Francois Lang and Philip Taylor

    This is the much-discussed "positive anymore." See for example:



  18. David Morris said,

    February 25, 2022 @ 2:46 am

    Online 'newspapers' don't always have unlimited space. The 'front page' of the online version of the Sydney Morning has a definite grid into which the headline, introductory sentence and maybe photo are placed. This morning one story had the headline 'Mystery ticket holder wins $63 / million in Powerball' (potentially me). Clicking through, the full story had the headline 'Mystery Coffs Harbour ticket holder wins $63 / million in Powerball' (not me).

  19. David Morris said,

    February 25, 2022 @ 1:23 pm

    (Something happened to the format. Not deliberate or significant.)

  20. jkroll said,

    February 25, 2022 @ 3:14 pm

    Google has been superseded as the main driver of news traffic by social media, where character count limits vary. But even with character limits, there's a key difference: In print, it wasn't just the overall length of a headline, but the length of each line in a multi-line head; most papers preferred to keep them fairly consistent. An online headline of 60 characters has more freedom than a print one composed of three 20-character lines.

    Other changes in common headline practice these days:

    — More aggressive nouns. Aside from tabloids, murderous short verbs such as crush and slay were largely limited to sports pages. Now, the mildest internet kerfuffle is reported in bloodthirsty headlines.

    — A/B testing (two headlines pitted against each other) led to increasing use of several formats, including numbered lists (10 ways to …), especially with offbeat numbers (the 7 best, the 16 greatest); "How to," "Where to" and similar; questions (What time is the Super Bowl on?); blatant teases ("Man enters building; you won't believe what happened next").

    — More straightforward explanations. In print, away from breaking news, headlines could be obscure and teasing, counting on the rest of the page's context to hep the readers guess at content. Online, where sometimes the headline is the only thing the user sees, we preach the use of key words (most likely search terms).

    — Less use of headlinese words such as "solon" because the writers don't know them. Headlines used to be the domain of copy editors operating in a hierarchical system, with the top level — often the oldest, most traditional editors — having final say. Online, increasingly, headlines are written by the reporters and posted without other oversight.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    February 25, 2022 @ 3:35 pm

    You fell into the Mathjax pit, David. Dollar symbols should be escaped with a preceding backslash if you wish to avoid this in the future.

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