Making the Headlines

Nigel J. Ross

'Cops' Murder Sparks Fear' yells the headline, and while mother-tongue teachers hardly look twice, even many of our best learners will be puzzled. Newspaper headlines are a relatively small but important part of language. And they deserve a bit more attention in the classroom. That stimulating class activity that ends up with students being invited to write a newspaper article will be all the more fruitful when the students have more of an idea of how to create a successful headline for their article. A little bit of work on the style, vocabulary and mechanics of headlines can easily provide a deeper understanding of the art of headline writing, aiding comprehension and spurring on some useful language work.

Sometimes learners need to be "thrown in at the deep end". Rather than spending precious minutes or even hours listening to long, dreary explanations that hardly seem to sink in, students can learn so much more by being asked to work things out for themselves. Of course a little guidance is often required, but the results of such a hands-on approach will be much more meaningful.

One of the first features that anyone instinctively identifies in newspaper headlines is their "telegraphic nature". Space is a prime constraint on headlines, so brevity is essential. This "art of compression", as it has been described, cries out for students to discover what headline writers miss out, as well as what verb system they use, what kind of vocabulary and syntax they employ when they come up with a catchy headline. Here are some practical ideas for classroom activities that stimulate an analysis of headline style.

What's missing?

Choose a few newspaper headlines from a paper you have at hand, a fairly random selection of perhaps 10-12, cut out and photocopied onto sheets or onto an OHP slide. Alternatively, if time allows, let students working in small groups make up their own collection from the papers. Then ask the students preferably working in pairs or small groups to rewrite the headlines as full, standard sentences, adding anything that is missing and making any other changes necessary. The following are some examples of the kind of headlines that could be used:

18 Die in Worst Storm on Record


Minister Quits over Leak

20-year friendship ends at altar

Turkish City in Ruins after Quake

1m of heroin found on ship


Oldest cat dies

Secret Diary To Be Published

Ban on tobacco ads long overdue

Trying to rewrite some headlines such as these as full sentences is an ideal task for group work, with lots of exchange of ideas. Some monitoring will of course help. Any vocabulary problems should be cleared up very quickly at this stage with brief explanations or referral to the dictionary. Once this rewriting task is more or less complete, ideas can be pooled. The first question has to be: "What is missing?". And it will quickly emerge (perhaps with a little guidance) that certain language elements are often omitted. Working together, a list can be compiled on the blackboard, whiteboard or OHP. The list should look more or less like this:

Perhaps before going on any further, it might be worthwhile asking students for comments as to why headlines omit certain words. Reasons that will probably emerge include the concept of a "telegraphic style" which also suggests a rather urgent way of delivering the news, and a basic quest for big, striking presentation the fewer the words, the larger the remaining words can be printed.

The tense system

Following straight on from the analysis of what newspaper headlines omit the lack of auxiliaries has already pointed the way the other main area of change of note is tenses. When rewriting the headlines as full, standard sentences, the tenses may have caused some problems and some gentle help may have been needed to get suitable forms (the present perfect often rears its ugly head once again here). A headline such as Secret Diary To Be Published should be expanded into: is to be published, is going to be published or something similar that suggests a future time scale. The headline Oldest cat dies will probably be expanded into The (nation's) oldest cat has died. A table can be built up, along the following lines, to show the tense system and the time periods implied.

Tense used in headline

Time indicated

Present (eg. dies)

Past (= has died, died)

Past participle (eg. found)

Past [passive] (= has been found)
[or occasionally Present]

Infinitive (eg. to be published)

Future (= is [going] to be published)

No tense (no verb)

General [Present, or sometimes Past]

The vocabulary of headlines

The headlines selected above will probably already have pointed towards another typical feature: the strong vocabulary used in headlines. Words such as boost, quit, leak, quake, hit, ban, and so on are typical of newspaper headlines. Students may know some of these words, others may be new. Whatever, it is worthwhile giving students a list of some common headline terms and ask them to find synonyms, words that they might be more familiar with. It is also a good opportunity for some dictionary work. The following list, with some sample synonyms, gives an idea of what such an activity might entail:

Headline Word


Headline Word


(to) boost

promote, encourage



(to) quit

resign, leave

(to) back


(to) leak



bad experience





(to) hit




(to) ban


(to) wed

marry, get married

(to) hold







armed man



(to) vow

promise, pledge

After working on such a list, some conclusions can easily be drawn. Even the sleepiest of students will notice that, in nearly all cases, the synonym is much longer than the original headline word. And, as has already been mentioned, shorter words mean bigger, bolder headlines. Colloquial shortenings, such as "ad" for "advertisement" or "op" for "operation", are also pressed into service for reasons of brevity. But apart from being just big and concise, headlines also need to be striking and forceful. This explains why the attention-grabbing word "blaze" is used instead of "fire", despite its extra letter. In fact most of these very effective headline words combine brevity and forcefulness. Extra language practise for this feature can be given with matching or rewriting exercises, such as the activities shown on the photocopiable page.


One of the sample headlines given at the beginning of this article was also chosen for its ambiguity. The headline 20-year friendship ends at altar can, of course, be interpreted in two very different ways the friendship ended in a rift at an altar, or the friendship eventually led to marriage. Ambiguity is ingrained in headlines because of their short, uncluttered nature, making them easy to misinterpret. At best, when a headline is ambiguous, we may be intrigued and encouraged to read the article to find out more; at worst, the result is comical. A bit of fun can be had by working out the unintended double meanings embodied in some famous (and not so famous) ambiguous headlines (see websites listed at the end of article for fuller lists):

Giant Waves Down Ship's Funnel

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

Monty Flies Back to Front

Greek Students Revolting

Iraqi Head Seeks Arms

Incest more common than thought in US

Drunk Gets Nine Months In Violin Case

Stolen painting found by tree

Chinese Apeman Dated

Two Soviet Ships Collide, One Dies

Quarter of a million Chinese live on water

Hospital Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

... and more besides

There is even much more to headlines than what we have identified so far. Headline writers, like journalists in general, seem to have a penchant for wordplay. This feature is particularly evident in British papers, notably in the tabloids. Puns are especially hard for foreigners to appreciate, but some easier puns are perhaps accessible: Clown Prince, Doctor Will Maintain Swiss Role or New Plant Joins Kew. A headline such as Off-the-cuff rescue by the long arm of the law clearly makes use of wordplay, but the true significance of the puns is only revealed when reading the whole of the article (a policeman saved a drowning woman by handcuffing her to him until more help arrived, but in the process he suffered a dislocated wrist). Puns can be based on a wide range of sources, from stock expressions to the latest film or TV-programme title.

As well as wordplay, headline writers in their quest for crisp, striking phrases use nouns as verbs, adjectives as nouns, verbs as adjectives and so on. This feature, known as "class-shifting", lends even greater flexibility to the headline style. The results, however, are often confusing, even for mother-tongue speakers. But as with the ambiguous headlines examined earlier, this feature may encourage readers to look more closely at the article itself. "Class-shifting" becomes especially confusing, though, when lists of nouns or verbs are used as adjectives, as in: Cliff Plunge Horror or German floods death toll rises or again Strike Ban Shock Probe.

A final feature to be mentioned is sound. Headlines can be made to sound more appealing by using what the poet would call alliteration or assonance. For a headline writer, it's not a matter of creating a poetical atmosphere through the use of sound, it's simply a matter of coming up with a phrase that sounds good and might make readers curious enough to read the article, as in the dramatic Baby Maimed by Devil Dog, the titillating Ex-monk murders frisky fiancée 83, the much-cited Up Yours Delors or the hoax headline Bus Found Buried at South Pole.

Follow-on activities

Once the presentation phase for headline style has been completed, practice and consolidation are fairly simple matters. Opportunities and options are vast, and the following is just a short list of possible activities:

Newspapers have always been a particularly useful source of material in the classroom, but all too often articles are used purely for their content, stylistic features being ignored. In the case of headlines in particular, this can often leave students baffled or even encourage them to shun newspaper articles. When headlines cause problems, reading newspapers is hardly likely to be an appealing option. It may not only be just the Cops' Murder that Sparks Fear, but the headline itself! A few practical activities can help to overcome such a situation, and at the same time they can give useful language input as well as a bit of fun.

Some useful further reading

Crystal, David (1998) Language at Play, Penguin, London.
Man, John (1995) Hitting the Headlines, Reader's Digest Association, London.
McArthur, Tom (ed.) (1992) The Oxford Companion to the English Language (entry under Headline), Oxford University Press, Oxford (also online at
Reah, Danuta (1998) The Language of Newspapers, Routledge, London.
Robinson, Pauline (1983) Using English, Blackwell, Oxford.
Waterhouse, Keith (1989) On Newspaper Style, Viking-Penguin, London.
Win Free Sex! Gotcha!, in Newsweek, October 31 1988.

Some online sources for ambiguous headlines



Headline Vocabulary

Activity 1

Match the striking words in the following headlines to their more common counterparts given below.


Dawn raid on old-folks' home


PM urges probe into rigged polls

Storm over axed motorway

President ousted after cuts

Blaze death toll rises


people's - revelation - falsified - investigation - number - resigns - attempt - removed - argument - fire - children's - prohibition - fights - election - cancelled - stop/prevent - reduction - requests - attack/incursion of robbers or police

Activity 2

Rewrite the following headlines as full sentences in standard English, removing the striking dramatic vocabulary and using the appropriate tenses.


Man held after Commons blast

Jobless total tops 4 million


Currency storm - pound plunges

Unions back go-ahead for new plant


Wilkins exits - Ferguson to head peace talks


Kidnap victim's ordeal ends after police swoop

Government drive to stop drink-drivers

   Published in Modern English Teacher (Vol. 12/3 July 2003) Modern English Publishing Ltd, UK.




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