This post is an introduction to the different ways newspaper articles can be adapted for different uses. It contains initial ideas for tackling these authentic texts. Each of these topics could potentially be discussed in great detail, and require years of formal as well as additional training to grasp and perfect. If you have a particular interest in one area, look for other books, online resources and training on the specific topics. Every topic here has a wide range of literature surrounding it, and my intention here is only to begin bridging the general principles and conventions of journalism.
As publications follow specific style guidelines, newspapers, magazines, and websites often include exceptions to typical English rules. 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 eight rules are the most common variations used in headlines, found across a range of written media, particularly online articles. These rules typically apply to journalism and other report writing (including some business writing), but are less common in formal writing, such as academic papers or formal publications like books. You can study other genres to see which rules are used (or not). Where permitted, though, these tips can work to understand more striking headlines and titles.
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
For the result of an action, or something that has been specifically completed, perfect tenses are used; for changing events, the present continuous may be used. Both tenses often use participles alone, as discussed below.
2. Leave out auxiliary verbs
With perfect, progressive, and passive structures, auxiliary verbs are not necessary in headlines. This makes some headlines appear to be in the past simple, when actually the headlines have a perfect or passive meaning. Changing events are represented by the present participle on its own:
- New Policy Decided by Parliament (new policy has been decided/was 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
A future time is not necessary to demonstrate the future form in headlines, as an infinitive form can demonstrate the future:
- Parliament to Vote on Hunting Ban
- President to Visit France for Further Talks
4. Leave out articles (a, an, the)
Articles and determiners can be omitted in headlines, unless they are important to aid understanding:
- 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/the park)
5. Leave out “to be”
As with auxiliary verbs, to be may be omitted from headlines, as an adjective or other describing phrase can clearly imply a state:
- Residents Unhappy About New Road (residents are unhappy)
- Victim Satisfied with Court Decision (victim is satisfied)
6. Leave out “to say”
Reported speech is usually represented by a colon, or a hyphen, with the subject introduced with on:
- Mr Jones: “They Won’t Take My House!”
- Bush on Iraqi Invasion: “This Aggression Will Not Stand.”
Other verbs such as comment, tell, argue, announce, shout, etc. can be left out, 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
As with reporting speech, commas, colons, semi-colons, hyphens, and so on can replace all conjunctions, or some joining verbs, to join clauses:
- Police Arrest Serial Killer – Close Case on Abductions
- Fire in Bakery: Hundreds of Loaves Lost
Commas may also be used to join nouns, though this is more common in American English than British English.
- Man Kills 5, Self
8. Use figures for numbers
Using figures in a headline is more likely to catch the reader’s attention:
- 9 Dead in Glue Catastrophe
- 7 Days to Christmas – Shoppers Go Mad
These eight tips can be useful, but use them with caution. Grammar variations can lead to ambiguous headlines, as many words are implied and not written, so be careful when applying them to make sure that you can understand headlines and titles. They should have a single, clear meaning.
Different vocabulary may also be used in headlines. Concise verbs which are not common in general English are often used, such as bid, vow, and spark. Additional style issues to consider for certain publications include use of Title Case (Capital Letters) and commas, though these should be covered by overall considerations for the house style.