Understanding newspaper headlines in English

Understanding newspaper headlines in EnglishUnderstanding newspaper headlines in English

The headline of a news article tells us what the story will be about.

News headlines are not usually written in complete sentences so they can be difficult to understand.

Let’s look at some grammar points to think about in relation to news headlines.

Headlines in present tense

Headlines are often written in present tense

For example:

Prime Minister Faces Criticism

It is useful to ask yourself questions when reading a news headline to prepare yourself to read and understand the news article.

For example, in relation to the headline above:

  • About what?
  • From whom?

The news story that headline is about would then go on to explain the situation in more detail using a range of tenses.

For example:

The Prime Minister faced criticism from the opposition party in parliament yesterday about the lack of transparency that has been shown about the new budget cuts.

Headlines using noun phrases

A noun phrase describes a noun. Headlines often contain a noun phrase with no verb.

For example:

Unexpected Government Announcement

Useful questions to ask yourself before reading the article:

  • What is the announcement?
  • Why was it unexpected?
  • Who does it affect?

Donation response overwhelming

Useful questions to ask yourself before reading the article:

  • What is the donation for?
  • Who responded?
  • Why was the response considered overwhelming?



Headlines using noun strings

Another common headline form is a string of nouns together.

These can be difficult to understand because these kinds of headlines don’t include verbs or adjectives.

For example:

Nightclub Closure Anger

School Regulations Uproar

It is often possible to decide what the headline and news story is about by thinking about the words individually and also by reading the headline backwards.

For example:

Anger Closure Nightclub indicates that somebody is angry because a nightclub was closed down.

Useful questions to ask yourself before reading the article:

  • Who is angry?
  • Why was the nightclub closed down?

Or Uproar Regulations School tells us that that someone is angry about something to do with school regulations.

Useful questions to ask yourself before reading the article:

  • Who is angry?
  • What regulations are they angry about?


Headlines where infinitive verb form refers to the future

Sometimes headlines are written in a way that the infinitive form of a verb refers to the future.

For example:

Retail company to expand operations  (The company is going to open new shops.)

Prince William to Visit Auckland  (A member of the British Royal Family is going to visit Auckland soon.)

Headlines using the passive verb form

Sometimes headlines are written using the passive verb form but the auxiliary verb is dropped.

For example:

Family Killed in Tragic Accident.. (a family has been killed in a tragic accident)


Articles dropped in headlines

You will often read a headline where the article ‘a’ ‘an’ or ‘the’ is not included in the headline.

if we look at the example above again we can see that the article was also dropped along with the auxiliary verb.

Family Killed in Tragic Accident.. (a family has been killed in a tragic accident).


Commenting on the news

When we comment on the news, we also often use a present tense. For example, it is natural to start talking about a news article you have just read or listened to using the present perfect.

For example:

  • They’ve just said on the news that…
  • I’ve just read a news story that said…


Giving more details about the story

When we move on to give more details about the story, we would need to use a range of tenses and will usually use reported speech.

For example:

Prime Minister Faces Criticism


In Parliament today, the Prime Minister was criticized for the lack of transparency the government has shown regarding new budget cuts which will be in place next month.

They’ve just said that the Prime Minister has been criticized because the government hadn’t been transparent enough about the new budget cut decisions.

Misleading headlines

Clickbait means online content which has the main purpose of attracting attention and encouraging visitors to click on a link to a particular web page rather than giving them factual information. The purpose is so that advertising revenue can be earned through ‘clicks’.

We can sometimes see in the news stories that the impression a headline gives does not reflect the true situation when we read an article in full.

Sensational headlines that falsely represent what the news story will actually be about are an  example of ‘clickbait’.

Sometimes headlines are deliberately misleading for other reasons. Perhaps for political reasons or to build up anger about a topic. Many people will see headlines but not read the full story which adds to the growing problem of misinformation spreading in society.


Now test your skills with understanding newspaper headlines in English with this exercise. Click the link below to begin.

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