Readers say find headline syntax weird

A news story at Reuters last week had a striking bit of syntax in its headline:

reuters headline - says expects to announce

This unorthodox grammatical construction is not unusual in headlines, but I didn’t make a note of it before. A quick search online with various headline-friendly verbs shows it to be a regular enough occurrence:

global post - says finds

multichannel news - says wants role says hopes

rte news - central bank says expects

the star online - says wants

The plain-language advocate Ernest Gowers, in his revision of Fowler’s, wrote that it would be “unreasonable to criticize headlines for not conforming to literary standards, or even for lacking any grammatical structure”.

I don’t think headlines ever completely forgo grammatical structure, though their structure is often more elliptical than what we find in standard writing.

It’s not as though there was no room for he, it, or whatever pronoun might apply between the two verbs in each case here. But headlines have a sublanguage all their own (sometimes called headlinese), and its rules are dictated by convention as much as necessity.

For more on headline language, including crash blossoms, noun pileups and assorted ambiguities, see the headlines archive.

14 Responses to Readers say find headline syntax weird

  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    I’ve posted about this bit of Reuters-ese on Language Log a few times, most recently here (includes links to past posts).

  2. Ben Zimmer says:

    Whoops, here‘s a more recent post mentioning the construction.

  3. Why include ‘says’ in the first place? Do you think this could a consequence of overcautious subbing?

  4. Stan says:

    Ben: Thanks for the links. I should have checked LLog first. Earlier posts by Arnold Zwicky and yourself are very helpful on this too. And I can’t believe I forgot about White House Says Bears Part Of Blame For Senate Loss (I even left a comment on that one). I burst out laughing when I saw the headline again.

    Michelle: There may be an element of that. Taking “Erdogan says expects” as an example, perhaps “Erdogan expects” could be interpreted as hearsay or speculation, whereas “Erdogan says [he] expects” confirms that a statement came from the person themselves.

  5. looselips says:

    Having worked as a journalist for a time, I can confirm that editors like the language to be very specific, sometimes regardless of the awkward syntax. My editor used to say, “you can never know what people think, only what they say.”

  6. Mar Rojo says:

    Not sure the same ellipsis , “says wants”, would work here:

  7. Charles Sullivan says:

    Perhaps the word “says” could be replaced with a colon. That would help indicate that the statement comes from the subject.

  8. SlideSF says:

    I believe in this case that necessity is the mother of convention.

  9. Stan says:

    looselips: That’s a good rule of thumb.

    Mar: Not really, no.

    Charles: It could, but some Reuters writers obviously prefer this style. Also, in a headline like “Syria: hopes new peace mediator will be fair”, I don’t think the colon’s function is sufficiently clear, and readers may wonder why it isn’t just “Syria hopes new peace mediator will be fair”.

    SlideSF: Oh yes! Very good.

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      In the Syria example I do think the colon’s function is clear. Just because you can remove the colon w/o any change in meaning does not demonstrate the point. Just to be fair, you should compare the colon example to: “Syria says hopes new mediator will be fair.”

      The colon has been used for a long time to indicate the speaker. We use it in plays (theatre) and headlines. Everything after the colon indicates the view of the speaker (the speaker is indicated before the colon).

  10. David Morris says:

    And then there’s the ‘noun pile’ headline style: Erdogan prime minister announcement expectation statement. (I can’t quite fit in ‘Turkey’s’ (but if you know who Erdogan is, you will also know which country) and ‘next week’.)

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