Expanding headlines

Exploring the grammar of newspaper headlines

Newspaper headlines are often not full sentences, but they are nevertheless quite easy to make sense of. In this starter, students will use their implicit knowledge of grammar to expand newspaper headlines into complete sentences, and then explicitly analyse what they've done. The Activity slide show appears in the menu entitled 'This Unit' in the upper right corner of this page. In the Activity slide show, five example headlines are presented. Students should do the following:

  • Expand each headline into a complete sentence by adding as few words as possible.
  • Expand the headline into a more detailed complete sentence by adding even more additional words and phrases.
  • Identify what types of words and phrases have been omitted from the headline, and discuss why they were omitted.

Newspaper headlines often use very compressed language, as in the following example:

  • Lorry driver cut free after crash

This could be expanded into the following, adding as few words as possible: 

  • A lorry driver was cut free after a crash.
  • A lorry driver has been cut free after a crash.

One example of a more detailed, longer sentence might be the following (though there are many other possibilities too):

  • A lorry driver was taken to hospital after being cut free from his vehicle, which overturned and collided with a van.

The above sentence does not use the phrase after a crash, but instead gives details of the crash.

Students should generate a short sentence and a longer, detailed sentence for each headline. Then, they should ask what they notice about the words that have been added. What kinds of words are they? What functions do they serve? 

Discussion

In this exercise, we look at the roles played by different kinds of words. It can be useful here to think about a contrast between content words and grammatical words.

Content words have the kind of full meaning content that can be described separately, like crash, guilty or block. The meanings of grammatical words are often harder to pin down. They are words like a, of or and which function mainly to express quite general grammatical meanings or relationships.

The words left out of headlines are often grammatical words, so you are likely to have added this kind of word in your short expansions. In your longer expansions, you are likely to have added some further content words as well.

Sometimes content words are also left out of headlines, if they are easily predictable from the context.

For instance, the first example was Pakistani PM guilty of contempt. Here you are likely to have added some form of the verb find, as in the following expansions:

  • The Pakistani PM has been found guilty of contempt.
  • A court has found the Pakistani PM guilty of contempt.

In this instance the meanings of the other elements in the headline make it easy to supply the missing verb.

In some cases it is quite difficult to understand a headline, unless you already know something about the situation. Take the following example:

  • QPR stars to decide on Terry handshake

Here the noun phrase Terry handshake is unusual. If we don’t know the situation, we can only conclude it’s something to do with Terry and a handshake. To find out more, we need to read on.

Here is the first paragraph of the story:

  • FOOTBALL: QPR boss Mark Hughes will meet his players on Friday to discuss whether to snub John Terry in the ceremonial handshakes before Sunday’s match against Chelsea. (Morning Star, online, 26 April 2012)

Unusual noun phrases like Terry handshake are quite commonly used in headlines as a way of compressing information. See if you can find some more examples from newspapers.

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