Because space is limited, headlines are written in a compressed telegraphic style, using special syntactic conventions:
- Forms of the verb "to be" are omitted.
- Articles are usually omitted.
- Most verbs are in the simple present tense, e.g. "Governor signs bill".
- The future is expressed as "to" followed by a verb, e.g. "Governor to sign bill".
- In the US (but not the UK), conjunctions are often replaced by a comma, as in "Bush, Blair laugh off microphone mishap".
- To save space, a long word is sometimes replaced by a shorter word with not quite the same meaning, e.g. "attack" to mean "criticize".
- Country names are often used instead of their adjective form.
Individuals are usually named by their last name only, with no honorifics.
Organizations and institutions are often named by metonymy: "Wall Street" for "the financial industry", "Whitehall" for the UK government administration, "Madrid" for "the government of Spain", "Davos" for "World Economic Forum", and so on.
Headlines use many contractions and abbreviations: in the USA, for example, Pols (for "politicians"), Dems (for "Democrats"), GOP (for the Republican Party, from the nickname "Grand Old Party"), Govt for government; in the UK, Lib Dems (for the Liberal Democrats), Tories (for the Conservative Party).
Commonly used short words
To save space, headlines often use extremely short words (many of which are not in common use otherwise) in unusual or idiosyncratic ways:
- axe (eliminate)
- bid (attempt)
- blast (heavily criticize)
- chop (eliminate)
- confab (meeting)
- curb (reduce)
- duo (two people)
- eye (consider)
- fold (shut down)
- hike (increase)
- ink (sign a contract)
- laud (praise)
- mull (consider)
- nix (reject)
- parley (meeting)
- pen (write)
- probe (investigate)
- quiz (question)
- rap (criticize)
- see (forecast)
- slam (heavily criticize)
- temblor (earthquake)
- tout (endorse)
- vie (compete)
- woe (problem)
Many verbs can be converted into nouns, e.g. "rap" could be understood as either "criticize" or "criticism" depending on context.
The vocabulary and grammatical constructs used in headlines have become so culturally ingrained that they are often encountered even where there are no space constraints, for example in internet news agencies' headlines.
- Headlinese : on the grammar of English front page headlines, Ingrid Mard, ISBN 91-40-04753-9 (pbk.), Lund studies in English
- Biber, D. 2007. Compressed noun phrase structures in newspaper discourse: The competing demands of popularization vs. economy. In W. Teubert and R. Krishnamurthy (Eds.), Corpus linguistics: Critical concepts in linguistics (Vol. V), 130-141. London: Routledge.