Sub ire as hacks slash word length

Did you understand the above sentence? I thought not. But most native speakers would understand at least the gist of it beccause it’s written in a form of English known as “headlinese”, the langauge of newspaper headlines. Headlinese is a kind of jargon which condenses a lot of meaning into a few short words so for example, “STAR TO WED” would be headlinese for “A celebrity is going to get married”.

This article reblogged from The Guardian explains the reason behind some of the vocabulary choices and grammatical changes that take place in this esoteric media argot.

A stranger arriving in this land, English diploma clutched tightly, might be forgiven, on catching sight of a newspaper stand, for throwing up her hands and turning homewards. “Kendra hubby’s rage at ‘sex pest’ Jake”. “Panic room bed tax victim taken to court”. “Ox aye the Roo!”


The orthography is recognisably English, but the order is all wrong; the tenses work differently, and some of the words – well, they’re in the dictionary, but that’s about the only place you’ll find them. This is because headlines don’t use English at all, but a language all their own.

No, teacher’s pet at the front there, it’s not journalese. It’s headlinese – an argot that shares some similarities with journalese, but is in fact quite separate. Thanks to shrinking front pages and increasing font sizes the character limit in headlines is now at an all-time low. And while there have always been circumstances that call for verbal economy, such as stone tablets, telegrams and Twitter, newspaper editors have more than word count to worry about. They have competitors. As well as brevity, their headlines need immediacy and impact. These combined forces have shaped a unique and fascinating grammar.

Some newspapers bend the rules of standard English a little further than others, but the difference is a matter of degree: broadsheets may consider themselves a breed apart from tabloids, but all papers essentially follow the same rules.

Different ways to report the same story. Photograph: Andy Hall /Guardian

Here, as I understand them, are the main features of headlinese:

  • Articles and possessive pronouns are practically nonexistent. Thus “Scotland at heart of new fracking deal” instead of “Scotland is at the heart of a new fracking deal”
  • All forms of the verb “to be” are similarly superfluous: “Sisters praised for hitting back at sex attackers” (This can cause unfortunate ambiguities – the notorious 1980s headline in a national newspaper “Boy wanted to kill queen”, and a more recent example from a first edition of the Guardian: “Ennis-Hill sent rape threats in footballer row”)
  • The past tense is replaced by the more concise present simple: “Ukip say more Tories ready to defect”, rather than “Ukip said/have said that more Tories are ready to defect”. This also makes the news seem more immediate.
  • The future tense, meanwhile, is rendered by the infinitive: “Muggers to avoid jail sentences” rather than “Muggers will/are going to avoid jail sentences”, (Again, care should be taken; see the case of the Deseret News’s 1975 splash, “Juvenile court to try shooting defendant”)
  • Noun modifiers are rampant. Instead of expressing relationships between people and things with punctuation, conjunctions and prepositions, headline writers string nouns together. Similarly, adjectives are often abandoned when the noun is shorter. Hence “Horror deaths in Cadogan Square” instead of “Horrifying deaths in Cadogan Square”, and “Blades axe for rapist Evans” in place of “Sheffield United decline to renew the contract of Ched Evans, a convicted rapist”. I’ll leave it to you to unpick this offering from a September 2012 issue of Dublin’s free newspaper, the Metro Herald: “China Ferrari Sex Orgy Death Crash”. (You might counter that noun modifiers are everywhere in English. Well, yes, they are now, but they were quite rare before the 20th century, and only started flooding the language in the 1950s and 60s, when tabloids came to prominence.)
  • Conversely, prepositions are often coopted to do the work of verbs, so “Holiday joy for millions” and “Miliband in attack on Rangers tycoon”
  • Punctuation is deemed surplus to requirements. It is, however, occasionally called upon to denote speech (verbs of speech, obviously, being too long): “Sir Cliff: I’ll sue the BBC”; “Budget row ‘ruins case for EU’”.
  • Abbreviations and shorthand are commonplace: “PM: I’ll ban benefits for EU migrants”.
  • Commas are (in America, chiefly, but increasingly in the UK) used to replace “and”: “Men Walk on Moon: Astronauts land on plain; collect rocks, plant flag”
  • The grandest, oldest and arguably finest headline tradition of all, of course, is the use of short words. Instead of disagreeing, people “clash”. Rather than competing, they “vie”. Instead of divisions, we have “rifts”. And instead of a Mexico president promising reforms of the policing system in an effort to mollify people’s anger over the murder of 43 students, we get “Mexico president vows police reform in bid to quell massacre rage”. I was inordinately pleased with myself for coining the word “thinnernym” to describe these short words, although I’ve since been informed that I’m not the first to do so.
Baffled by headlines, or wishing you could write them? You should add the Thinnernymicon to your reference shelf. Photograph: Graham Turner /Guardian


And with all of this, by and large, I am quite at ease. Most of the time, the meaning of headlines is quite clear (to native English speakers, anyway). They generally achieve their aim of provoking interest without misrepresenting the facts too grievously. Moreover, they’re almost the last bastion of many vigorous Old English words. Where else these days, outside a Will Self novel, will you find ire, dub, jibe, rue and mar?

What’s a little more concerning is the way that some of these thinnernyms are now seeping into the articles themselves. Journalese is borrowing with increasing regularity from headlinese. Here are some recent examples from the Guardian, some of which were edited before publication:

  • “Polls suggest they support renationalising rail and energy and want higher taxes on the rich and a hiked minimum wage.”
  • “David Cameron’s calls for curbs on EU migrants were slapped down today by Jean-Claude Juncker.”
  • “Nigel Farage’s local Ukip branch has called out the BBC for its ingrained liberal bias.” (Personally, I’d only “call out” the BBC in the event of a televisual emergency. Or if it had somehow impugned my honour – the original meaning is “to challenge to a duel”.)

Thinnernym creep isn’t an unalloyed disaster. The word “rig”, for example, has become the standard term to refer to unfair collusion in elections and markets, and to my mind it’s more expressive than “manipulate”. And in some types of article, such as comment pieces and sketches, colloquial terms are preferable. However, it does have its problems. Three, by my reckoning:

1) Lack of authority
Why should we set any store by what we read in the papers? Because we defer to journalists as having greater knowledge and/or insight on a particular subject. We generally take their expertise for granted. But how do reporters convince? By writing with *authority*.

Different newspapers have different methods of earning our respect. The red-tops use wit and irreverence (and the rather CHEAP technique of CAPITALISING every third WORD). With the mid-market tabloids, it’s forceful and emotive language. The broadsheets’ aim is serious, thorough, balanced coverage, and the prerequisite for this is eloquence: a writer who has mastered the nuances of the language is more likely to convince us that she understands the finer points of policy, or ideology, or scientific theory.

2) Lack of clarity
Perhaps a graver charge is that headlinese often lacks precision. “Boss” can mean line manager, executive, chief executive or chair; “clash” covers everything from spat to disagreement to all-out war; and “fear” might describe mere concern, anxiety, or wide-eyed terror (though it’s often safe to assume the truth lies at the tamer end of the scale). When tired thinnernyms are repeatedly trotted out, the reader is left unable to distinguish one political charivari from the next.

3) Lack of variety
An overreliance on the same words also makes for dull reading. If you’ve ever experienced a sense of deja vu while reading about different events, it’s probably because the same formulations are being used to describe them. It’s important to make stories feel fresh, and one way is to dive into the thesaurus.

It’s hard to shake the impression that some reporters and editors have pored over so many headlines that they’ve forgotten the long words the thinnernyms were originally employed to replace. Here is a guide, whose purpose is threefold: a) to remind journos of the proper English term; b) to remind editors of the shorter alternatives they can use in headlines; and c) to serve as a translation service.


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