Headline, Question.
July 4, 2005 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Why do US newspaper headlines regularly omit the word "and" and replace it with a comma, such as "Convergence of Driver, Bicyclist Ends in Arrest" taken from a current Front Page Post. UK newspapers do not do this. Is it purely a space saving mechanism, or is there a stylistic thing going on?
posted by jontyjago to Writing & Language (31 answers total)
Yes, it's to save space. I guess you could say it's a stylistic thing since it's allowed by U.S. headline writing style. For what it's worth, I used to write these kind of headlines for a newspaper and even won a headline writing contest.
posted by grouse at 1:57 PM on July 4, 2005

I don't have an answer to this, but coming from the UK I find it weird and annoying. It's even worse when spoken by newscasters, and I doubt it is space saving as this type of abbreviation is used verbally all the time, and to spectacularly irritating effect in the ubiquitous "...xxxx, Police said Friday." ON Friday. Thinking about it, it probably comes from the limitations of the telegram, or other antique means of communication where space was an issue. I could be wrong.
posted by fire&wings at 1:58 PM on July 4, 2005

Man Shoots Neighbor With Machete
"And" Conveys Zip Info
No "And", Bigger Font.
Babies Are What Mothers Eat
Include Children When Baking Cookies
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:01 PM on July 4, 2005

Thinking about it, it probably comes from the limitations of the telegram, or other antique means of communication where space was an issue.

Like a finite amount of paper with ink on it?

In AP news writing style, when in doubt, do whatever takes up the least space. Hence no serial comma in AP style.
posted by grouse at 2:06 PM on July 4, 2005

Newspapers have variable font sizes and no character limit.
posted by fire&wings at 2:47 PM on July 4, 2005

Sure, but headlines are more impressive when they feature only "meaty" words. This way you can use larger type and still fit your message on the one line. Besides, terseness is an artform.
posted by clevershark at 3:21 PM on July 4, 2005

"...Police said Friday." ON Friday.

What, you never say "I'll do it Friday"? Maybe you have a weird idiolect, but I assure you the usage you quote so dismissively is perfectly normal English. Newspapers have enough stylistic sins to rebuke without making new ones up.
posted by languagehat at 3:41 PM on July 4, 2005

Terseness artform, clevershark says
posted by grouse at 3:59 PM on July 4, 2005

But you can easily rephrase to not need the comma or "and": "Driver arrested after clash with bicyclist"

you never say "I'll do it Friday"?

That just doesn't sound right with a British accent
posted by cillit bang at 4:03 PM on July 4, 2005

Clevershark: Terseness art.
posted by kenko at 4:17 PM on July 4, 2005

I imagine it's part of the newspaper idiom by now, and that's the main reason it remains. If it was still strictly to save column space, you would expect not to see it in pieces written only for the Web. You also would expect to see it in UK papers, which (I'd never noticed) you apparently don't. Every profession has their quirks.
posted by Hildago at 4:29 PM on July 4, 2005

Yup, languagehat, I'm afraid that "I'll do it Friday" sounds completely wrong to this Briton too. I'm pretty certain it's an Americanism.

Returning to the original question, I reckon the comma style has evolved mainly so that The Onion can do headlines like "Clinton feels nation's pain, breasts".
posted by chrismear at 4:45 PM on July 4, 2005

We took your language and fixed it
posted by Mick at 5:11 PM on July 4, 2005

fire&wings: While newspapers don't have fixed fonts or character limits, the AP DOES have fixed limits for much of their material, and no control over font sizes when they send stuff over the wire. Hence, style is the fewest words possible. And newsrooms (even subpar ones like the one I work in) live and die by the AP stylebook.
posted by Happydaz at 5:14 PM on July 4, 2005

Best answer: Space issues are a consideration, but so are line breaks and column size. Often, words are omitted to make them flow and sound more clear when a headline jumps to a second line. Also so that the sentence will fit evenly on the top and bottom lines without extra space.

I would also say that it is important to remember from a stylistic perspective that the headline is not the first thing that people read (it goes: picture, caption, headline, story). So, by the time readers have gotten to the headline it's important for it to be short and sweet. The style here in the US dictates that using extraneous words like "and" take away from the more meaty and interesting words that may draw readers like "Convergence". (Although, I would say that "convergence" is kind of a crappy word in this situation and your example isn't the best headline.)

Headline writing is truly an art. So much so that it is taught in journalism schools. Most of the time copy editors (who have the most experience with AP style and grammar) are the ones charged with writing the headlines.

When I was in graduate journalism school (in the US) we would do headline writing drills and were graded on things like placement of comma and use of extraneous words.
posted by ebeeb at 5:31 PM on July 4, 2005

I have always found it annoying that many law firms and other professional partnerships do the same ("Walsh, Gregory" instead of "Walsh and Gregory" . . .). What space are they saving? Inches of bronze per plaque?
posted by realcountrymusic at 5:38 PM on July 4, 2005

I've had to write headlines for a paper and this practice is about saving space, or, rather, using space for something more interesting. Writing catchy, brief headlines is one of the so-called creative high points of journalism. There are some fine, pithy headlines to be found every day, but also shameful puns and cracks like "Suns Eclipse Lakers." Meh.

I don't care much for the liberties that headlines / radio & tv reporters (not to mention sports announcers) take with the language. They're all "valid" from a desriptivist's point of view, but considering how far and wide they travel and how many people digest them, I do wish that journalists of all stripes would set a more solid example of traditionally correct usage. I'm basically a descriptivist, but I favor long term stability in the language, too.

Media Invites Minspeak, Rant Claims.
posted by scarabic at 6:09 PM on July 4, 2005

Happydaz: You're not the only journalist who reads Ask Metafilter. Us yournalists are nosy folks, and some of us become curious about other people who make nasty comments about their employers. You're badmouting your workplace in a very public forum, you have your real name listed on your profile and a quick google tells me where you work. I'd be really careful before writing stuff like "even subpar ones like the one I work in" again if you don't want it to bite you in the ass one of these days.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:22 PM on July 4, 2005

Re: British vs. American English, and missing words;

"you never say "I'll do it Friday"?
That just doesn't sound right with a British accent"


"I'm afraid that "I'll do it Friday" sounds completely wrong to this Briton too."

How's about "Go down the pub?" What? You mean to the pub, right?

And there's probably more, on both sides...

posted by attercoppe at 6:38 PM on July 4, 2005

If it makes you feel any better, professional copy editors are amused as well:

[in a job description] We want someone who speaks fluent headline....

Does this mean "nabbed" has to be part of your working vocabulary?

See also Staccato Yelps, which quotes from a 1993 book by Lynn Ludlow:

The headline itself is considered an American invention.... Present-tense verbs burst into headlines near the end of the 19th century, when the new-fangled rotary press brought mass circulation dailies into urgent competition for readers.

Editors began to talk of banners, screamers, skylines, ribbons, wrap-arounds, snappers, kickers and eyebrows. Headlines were staggered, hung, stepped, indented, centered, boxed or shaped like a V. The language of headlines was shorn of auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, prepositions [?] and articles. Verbs, ignored in caption days, became queens. As nouveau royalty, predicates began to kill off their subjects. Consider the Chicago Tribune's screamer of April 11, 1951: "FIRES GEN. M'ARTHUR."

The copy editor's language favored staccato yelps: rap, foe, nab, vow, bid, aid, rid, aim, jam, row, etc. Perhaps a student of semantics will someday analyze the subconscious effects on generations of readers assaulted each day with a headline vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon terms chosen for brevity and violent impact: fray, whip, rout, stun, raid, spur, slap, slash.

Having spent my days in old newspapers, I do remember the FIRES GEN. M'ARTHUR days. Actually, today's headlinese is generally plainer and more grammatical. At a certain point there was a rebellion against the mroe extreme forms, which have been self-parodied to death, chiefly by Variety: HIX NIX STIX PIX and tabloids like the NY Post: HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.

Yes, "on Friday" is only used in the US for emphasis. "Let's get together Friday" is perfectly cromulent around these parts.

From the same forum, I found Wendy's Finger Suspects in Court Today. Then there's the implied, um, eroticism in heds such as NASA Probe Achieves Deep Impact as it Slams Into Comet ... hoo boy. At a certain level, it's just to subliminally titillate.
posted by dhartung at 6:58 PM on July 4, 2005

A friend worked his way through UBC writing headlines for the Vancouver Sun, occasionally slipping in these double entendres:

Best Place to Plant Lily: Warm, Moist Spot at Base of Trunk.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:09 PM on July 4, 2005

I've always enjoyed what The Onion's done with commas...

"Clinton feels nation's pain, breasts"
posted by brundlefly at 7:49 PM on July 4, 2005

Loquacious Repudiates Epigrammatic Craftsmanship;
Endorses Garrulous, Periphrastic Promulgation.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:23 PM on July 4, 2005

weapons-grade pandemonium: "A friend worked his way through UBC writing headlines for the Vancouver Sun

No way, WPG! Do they really hire students? I want in on this!
posted by ori at 10:27 PM on July 4, 2005

As a Brit who's lived in the States for over three years I can second what the other Brits here have said. I still find it odd to hear or read "I'll do it Friday", "I'll write you", "September 3rd".

We simply don't leave those prepositions and articles out and it sounds clumsy to us when they are omitted. It sounds almost like some sort of pidgin. I've actually been surprised to hear myself pick up quite a number of Americanisms: I never thought I'd find myself saying "Can I get a coffee?", for example - but I'll still say "I'll do it on Friday", "I'll write to you" and "September the 3rd".
posted by Decani at 6:44 AM on July 5, 2005

A friend worked his way through UBC writing headlines for the Vancouver Sun, occasionally slipping in these double entendres:

Why is it journalists are so fond of bum jokes? A colleague of mine was very proud of a headline on a restaurant review which had something to do with the popularity of Pacific Rimming. And Viz, I think it was, used to run a competition for people to get stories into their local papers using the words "chocolate starfish". My boyfriend of the time made up an entire story about a local baker and his new range of seafood-themed cakes. And of course how all the kiddies loved his chocolate starfish.

/back on topic

goodnewsfortheinsane - I trip over those damn waffles every time I step out the house. It's no joke, I tell you.
posted by penguin pie at 6:46 AM on July 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

I still find it odd to hear or read... "I'll write you"

Amazing, now Decani wants to remove indirect objects from the language after hundreds of years. There's no preposition missing there. The ellipsis is the direct object.
posted by grouse at 7:17 AM on July 5, 2005

I think it has to be the weight of tradition. It can't be space since US papers evidently couldn't give a shit about it.
The skills of condensation are but poorly developed in the United States and Canada. If North American reporters wrote concisely it would matter less, but they do not, and the absence of strict editing leads to wasted space and muffled meaning.

This is not just a matter of saving column-inches; on American newspapers whole columns could be saved every day and used for news, pictures of advertising. The inefficency and waste are extraordinary.

By contrast, thanks probably to the effect of wartime newsprint rationing fusing with historical development, the British sub-editor is first and foremost expected to be a concise editor; to be described as a tight sub is not a sign of moral turpitude. A good sub-editor takes pride in being able to convert into half a column a report that would take a column if printed as received -- and to do so without losing single relevant fact or straining a meaning.
-- Essential English for Journalists, Writers and Editors by Harry Evans.

He later goes on to lambast the US tendency to also drop the subject from headlines. Like he says, British subs take massive pride in conciseness, and that's what makes me laugh about claims that dropping the "and" is for reasons of space. UK papers manage without it, and manage well. AP copy is generally also the wordiest of the three big agencies (AP, PA and Reuters). Bloated, repetitive and circular.
posted by bonaldi at 4:26 PM on July 5, 2005

(of course it has to be repetitive because (I'm told) the tendency in the US is to trim from the end, rather than actually subbing the stuff.)
posted by bonaldi at 4:30 PM on July 5, 2005

Amazing, now Decani wants to remove indirect objects from the language after hundreds of years. There's no preposition missing there. The ellipsis is the direct object.

I'm sorry, what? My point was that we Brits say "I'll write to you", not "I'll write you". Now, unless my head has come completely undone, the second version is missing the preposition "to" when (and this is the important bit) compared to the first.

What this has to do with indirect objects and your suggestion that I wish to remove them from the language I have absolutely no idea. "I'll write (to) you" contains, I suppose, an implied direct object (the thing I will write) and an indirect object (you). In neither the British nor the American version of the phrase is the indirect object missing so I find myself completely unable to determine what the blistering Jesus you're on about, old son.

As for "The ellipsis is the direct object"... what ellipsis? Are you on drugs? Can I have some?
posted by Decani at 5:58 PM on July 5, 2005

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