Reading newspaper articles is an excellent way for foreign learners to build vocabulary and practice comprehension using real material. It can expose you to different topics, and a variety of language that is rare in spoken English. However, newspaper writing is rarely a representation of common English. Headlines in newspapers, in particular, use different grammar rules to everyday English. This is because they are designed to be short and to attract attention. The following 8 rules are often used to achieve this:
1. Use present simple tense for past events
The present tense is quick and current, and helps emphasise the action happening, rather than its completion.
- Parliament confirms new stray dog policy
- Lion escapes zoo
If we want to demonstrate the result of an action, or that something was completed, we can use perfect tenses, and for changing events, the present continuous may be used. However, these tenses are often shown by using participles alone.
2. Leave out auxiliary verbs
With perfect, progressive and passive structures, auxiliary verbs are not necessary. This makes some headlines appear to be in the past tense, when actually the headlines use past participles, or particles, not the past simple. Similarly, changing events are represented by the present participle on its own.
- New policy decided by Parliament (New policy has been decided by Parliament)
- Lion escapes zoo – ten killed (ten people have been killed / were killed)
- Four stranded in sudden flood (four people have been stranded / were stranded)
- Temperatures rising as climate changes (temperatures are rising)
3. Use infinitives for future events
- Parliament to decide new policy tomorrow
- President to visit France for further talks
Using the infinitive, a future time is not always necessary to demonstrate the future tense in headlines.
4. Leave out articles (a, an, the)
- Prime Minister hikes Alps for charity (The Prime Minister hiked the Alps)
- Man releases rabid dog in park (A man released a rabid dog in a park)
5. Leave out “to be”
- Residents unhappy about new road (residents are unhappy)
- Family of murder victim satisfied with court decision (family of murder victim is satisfied.)
6. Leave out “to say”
- Mr Jones: “They’re not taking my house!”
- Bush on Iraqi invasion: “This aggression will not stand.”
Reported speech is usually represented by a colon, or a hyphen, with the subject introduced with ‘on…’. This includes leaving out other verbs such as comment, tell, argue, announce, shout – unless the act of speaking needs emphasising, for instance to demonstrate a promise or official policy.
- Warlord decrees “Peace by Spring.”
7. Replace conjunctions with punctuation
- Police arrest serial killer – close case on abductions
- Fire in bakery: hundreds dead
As with reporting speech, commas, colons, semi-colons, hyphens and so on can replace all conjunctions, or some joining verbs, to join clauses. Commas may also be used to join nouns (more common in American English).
- Man kills 5, self
8. Use figures for numbers
- 9 dead in glue catastrophe
- 7 days to Christmas – shoppers go mad
As you can see, the grammar rules for newspaper headlines can lead to ambiguous headlines, as many words are implied and not written. You may also see different vocabulary in headlines, with less common, but concise, verbs, such as bid, vow and spark. There are many additional style issues that certain newspapers use, for instance the capitalisation of every word, or joining conjunctions with commas instead of conjunctions. The 8 rules above are the most common and consistent for headline grammar, however. If you’d like to learn more about grammar rules in English, you’ll find plenty more articles freely available on this site, and I always recommend Parrott’s extensive book (aimed at English teachers), and of course there’s the classic Strunk and White style guide.
Seen any headlines you’ve particularly enjoyed, or any rules you’re unsure of? Let me know in the comments below!