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The Grammar of (Newspaper) Headlines

Newspaper headlines are prose poetry. They have a spare grammar of their own, and they are constrained in size and content more strictly than a sonnet.

Indeed, there was a time within living memory, before computers and the Internet, when newspaper headline writing was recognized as an art (and a science) more difficult than writing a sonnet. More about that in another post. Here I just want to celebrate the basics of headline style, the rules for headlines.

1. Use present tense for past events:

COLUMBUS DISCOVERS
NEW ROUTE TO INDIA

2. Use to for future events:

SUN TO BURN OUT
IN 6 BILLION YEARS

3. Omit the, a, an:

COW JUMPS OVER MOON;
DOG WATCHES, LAUGHS

4. Use comma for and

JACK, JILL FALL FROM HILL;
CONCUSSIONS POSSIBLE

5. Never spell out numbers:

VIRGIL GUIDES DANTE
PAST 9 LEVELS OF HELL

6. Use colon for said or says:

GALILEO: ‘I CONFESS
EARTH STAYS STILL’

7. Use single quotation marks:

CAESAR TO BRUTUS: ‘ET TU?’
FALLS BY ‘UNKINDEST CUT’

8. Omit “be” in its various forms, except when emphasized:

CANDIDE, PANGLOSS HAPPY
CULTIVATING GARDEN

ROSENKRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN
HOIST WITH OWN PETARD

HAMLET ASKS ‘TO BE’ OR NOT?
PONDERS, DECIDES TO BE

10. Don’t split phrases between lines:

CHICKEN LITTLE SEES SKY
FALLING; HENNY PANICS

There are other rules, the most important being that the headline must accurately summarize the contents of the story. And there is a vocabulary of little space-saving words that appear frequently in headlines but not so often elsewhere: bar, bid, clash, hail, halt, loom, mar, opt, spark, vow and the like. But this is enough for now, except to invite you to give your own examples of headline rules in action.

LF BLOGGER: HEADS RULE
WHEN USING HEAD RULES

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