SEPTEMBER 1998

Understanding headlines

Many non-native English speakers wishing to practise their English comprehension will at some point pick up an English newspaper and read a few articles. Here are one or two pointers if you, too, decide to do this.

Journalistic English has a style all of its own, and this is most evident in headlines. The body text of an article should simply describe an event or occurrence, giving the details in a clear, well-ordered, easy-to-understand way, yet using such typical "journalese" expressions as, for example, the passive structures "is known to..." (for a definite fact), and "is thought to..." or "is believed to..." to express what people think. For example: "The fire is thought to have started in the kitchen and then spread throughout the building".

Headlines, however, have rules all of their own. By their very nature, they (usually) have to be short and concise, and their function (and this applies not only to sensationalist newspapers and the so-called "gutter press") is to draw the readerÕs attention to the article and make him/her want to read the body text.

Here is an abridged and adapted version of a short article that appeared recently in the British broadsheet (quality newspaper) "The Independent". Can you think of a suitable headline for it? Answer at the end of this column.

Scientists have discovered the near complete skull of a genuine ugly monster, a wrinkly faced dinosaur with sharp teeth and horns that may have used its face to frighten enemies. The creature, Majungatholus atopus, was a two-legged predator almost 20ft long and a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex. It lived 65 to 70 million years ago, on what is now the African island of Madagascar.
The discovery was reported in the journal Science Today by United States researchers. Professor David Krause, who led the team which found Majungatholus's remains, said: "This was the most terrific find I have been associated with in more than 25 years field work".
Majungatholus appeared to have been buried during a flood soon after its death, protecting its remains from scavengers and decomposition.

Basically, headlines fall into three categories. The first one is the headline that uses the Present tense to indicate that someone has done something. So the headline "Unemployed man wins £1M" means that an unemployed man has won a million pounds. The second is the headline that uses the Past participle to show that something has been done. So "Six killed in rail accident" means that six people have been killed in a rail accident. And finally, there is the headline that uses the infinitive to show that something is going to happen. So "Queen to visit India" means that the Queen is going to visit India.

It should be pointed out that for reasons of shortness and conciseness (as already mentioned), supposedly superfluous words are left out of headlines. This concerns, in particular, the definite and indefinite articles, so it is rare to see the words "a", "an" or "the" in a headline. So we would say "New Shakespeare play discovered" (headline) as opposed to "A new Shakespeare play has been discovered" (sentence). Similarly, the sentence "The White House has been damaged by a bomb" would become "White House damaged by bomb" in a headline.

This exercise in shortening is also evident when describing people. Indeed, the word "people" is seldom included, so we say, "Forty die in earthquake", which is understood to mean forty people. And when the age of the person is what is especially extraordinary in an account, we use the "xx-year-old" formula, without any further definition. So, "12-year-old climbs Everest" (not 12-year-old child/boy). If the person had been aged between 13 and 19, the word "teenager" could have been used.

And now back to that article about the discovery of a hitherto unknown kind of dinosaur. Possible headlines? How about "New dinosaur discovered" or "Jurassic discovery in Madagascar"? The actual headline was "T. Rex's ugly cousin is unearthed".
This arouses interest with the reference to T. Rex (most people have heard of Tyrannosaurus rex). In addition, it summarises the important points of the article in just five words, conveying the ideas that it is a dinosaur, it was ugly, it was related to T. Rex, and that it has just been discovered.

Keith Worby