Newspaper Headlines Decoded
The English of the news can sometimes be a bit hard to understand, particularly in a written form such as a newspaper. Trying to fit a lot of information into a small amount of space, particularly in headlines, newspapers often break grammar rules in order to use fewer words and use abbreviations you might not be familiar with. Another confusing aspect is that standards and styles vary slightly by the newspaper.
In this post, we’ll look at a few sample headlines to help you learn to decode them. Note that when viewed online, headlines change between the newspaper's homepage and the actual page for the article, since web articles don't have the same space limitations as a physical newspaper.
Congress and White House Reach Tentative Budget Deal
[read the article here in the New York Times]
Does that seem like a correct sentence to you?
You might first notice that almost every word (except for “and”) is capitalized. Unlike in some other languages, title formatting in English involves capitalizing most of the words, excluding a few less important words like “and,” “the,” “a,” most prepositions, and a few others. The New York Times writes all of its article headlines in title formatting, but other news agencies do this differently. Find more information on normal capitalization.
At this point, you might notice that the common words “a” and “the” are not present in the headline. If this headline were grammatical, it would say, “Congress and the White House reach a tentative budget deal.”
The words “a,” “an,” and “the,” known as articles, are often removed from newspaper headlines, since the meaning can be easily understood without them. (“Article” is also the word for the pieces of writing in a newspaper. No one ever said English wasn’t confusing!) Although the headline is grammatically incorrect without the articles, this saves space for more important words.
Another question that might come to mind is “how did Congress make a deal with the White House?”. The White House, after all, is a building where the president works and lives. How does a building make a deal?
Newspapers will often use a building or a place to represent the people who work there (if you’re curious, there is a fancy, strange-sounding term for this usage: “metonymy”). It’s another space-saving technique, and also makes the headlines a bit more poetic. “The White House” represents the American president and his team, “the Capitol” might represent the American legislature, and “Washington” could even represent the American federal government as a whole!
Simple present tense
Lastly, you might notice that the verb “reach” is in the simple present tense, a tense we don’t use often in English. Even stranger, the present tense is used to describe something that has already happened. A more logical sentence might be: “Congress and the White House have reached a tentative budget deal.”
The use of the present simple tense makes the news seem more exciting and relevant, and also simply takes up less space. Other tenses in English can involve lots of extra helping verbs that make the headlines very long, so the present simple is the standard tense for news titles.
Walgreens Boots Swings to Profit
[read the article here in the Wall Street Journal]
Can you make sense of this sentence? Here’s a case where the short language of headlines and the title formatting can sometimes make the title a bit difficult to understand (even for native speakers!).
Multiple options to choose from
The first three words each end in “s.” In English, this means that these words are either plural nouns, simple present verbs (remember that this is the tense of news headlines!), or words who just happen to end in s. If you’re not familiar with all the words, it can be hard to determine which type each is.
Try going through the headline one word at a time:
Walgreens: let’s say you don’t recognize this word. Maybe the other words will help!
Boots: a boot is a type of footwear. “To boot” is also another way of saying “to fire” or “to make someone leave a job.” Is the headline talking about “boots” from Walgreens? Is something called Walgreens “booting” someone? Let’s read on.
Swings: “Swings” are common on playgrounds, where children sit on a suspended seat and rock back and forth. “To swing” is also a verb related to the idea of turning something around. It’s still not clear how these first three words fit together!
Profit: this is a word you’ll encounter often in business-related articles; a profit is the amount of money a business has left after you subtract the money they spend. These means that the article is probably somehow related to business. Can you figure out from here how all the words link?
Putting it all together
If you read the first sentence of this article, you’ll see that Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. is in fact the name of a company.
So, the “normal” version of this sentence might be “Walgreens Boots swings to a profit,” i.e. Walgreens Boots was not making a profit before, but now they’re making more money than they’re spending. The all-capital styling can sometimes make it unclear which words are proper nouns. If you’re ever lost, just take a look at the article! Any well-written article will include important information for understanding at the very beginning.
Let’s take a look now at a headline from a British newspaper.
Job advice to be offered at food banks, Iain Duncan Smith tells MPs
[read the article here in The Guardian]
You’ll notice here that the Guardian, like some other US papers and many UK papers, does not put its headlines in title format and goes for more standard capitalization.
“To” = “will”
You’ll notice the construction “to be offered.” Headlines will often include “to [verb]” to talk about things that will happen in the future. So “Job advice to be offered at food banks” is another way of saying “Job advice will be offered at food banks.” A food bank is a place that gives food to people who might not be able to afford it.
You may or may not be familiar with the abbreviation MP. This stands for Member of Parliament, and describes someone elected to the House of Commons, the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
Let’s now look at the format of the headline as a whole. Whoever Iain Duncan Smith is, he is telling something to the MPs. Newspapers often use this format to describe the gist of a message. These are not Smith’s actual words, which is why the beginning of the headline is not in quotation marks.
However, this sentence is grammatically incorrect as is. Indirect speech in English usually has to be expressed “Iain Duncan Smith tells MPs that job advice will be offered at food banks.” In order to emphasize the message rather than the person saying it, and (again) to save space, newspapers will often put the general message at the beginning of the headline and eliminate the word “that.” After this, they will separate with a comma, and mention who was telling this message to whom at the end of the headline.
Here is a list of common abbreviations you might see in newspapers:
, : and; newspapers will replace “and” with a simple comma when really wanting to save space
EU: European Union
FDA: Food and Drug Administration, a US federal agency
Fed.: The Federal Reserve, the central banking system of the US
GOP: Grand Old Party, the Republican party of the USA
MP: Member of Parliament, used as a title for the lower houses of the UK, Australia, Canada, and other countries
NHS: National Health Service, the publicly funded healthcare system in the UK
PM: Prime Minister
SEC: Securities and Exchange Commission, a US federal agency
to: will (see above)
There you have it! You're ready to start tackling same real English-language headlines. Find any other questions? Let us know in the comments. In the meantime, consider boosting your skills and studying at one of our language schools around the world.