Local Man Loses Pants, Life. Ch. 1-2

1 Introduction

The title of this thesis, Local man loses pants, life, is a spoof on headline language from the TV show The Simpsons. Apart from making the reader wonder what the possible background for such a headline could be, it also contains the very feature that will be studied in this thesis, namely the presence in newspaper headlines of a particular form of unusual coordination: a comma between two items in a list of only two, where one would normally expect an and.

Newspaper headlines are a specialized text type, which often utilizes unusual, highly marked constructions that would be considered unacceptable in normal written English. There are a variety of reasons for this , such as the need for brevity and focus in order to catch a reader’s interest, while at the same time giving a good, condensed representation of the article.

The “rules” for headline language vary over time and between different countries and different newspaper types, but as with any text type, trends and features emerge which are either picked up or discarded by users on stylistic or practical grounds . Each newspaper ultimately decides for itself where the line between utility and style is drawn.

1.1 Aim and scope

The aim of this thesis is to examine to what extent coordination without a conjunction, referred to as asyndetic coordination, of two phrase-level items is used in English-language online newspapers. For this purpose , a corpus of 513 headlines with coordinated structures has been constructed. The headlines have been taken from 12 different English-language newspapers from four countries (the US, the UK, Australia and Canada) and published online between February 20 and March 31, 2012. The study is limited to the coordination of phrases within a clause (noun phrases, verb phrases or adjective phrases) where the coordinating element is either and; ampersand (&); or a comma which could be replaced by and, but not by but, or, or any other simple linker, as in this example (the code in brackets and my use of boldface in this thesis is explained at the end of section 3.5):

(1) Perry, Rihanna plan ‘iconic’ duet [CSNP15]

Examples with more than two coordinated phrases are not included, and neither is coordination of entire clauses. The reason for this limitation is discussed in greater detail in section 2.1, along with definitions, but it is mainly a question of trying to isolate and study a type of construction which would be considered highly marked in formal writing and, unlike some other unorthodox constructions in headlines, does not seem to be universally accepted in the English-language newspaper world.

The approach has been corpus-driven. The corpus was constructed first, and based on the data, some analysis was performed, along with some discussion based on the limited secondary sources extant.

1.2 Syntactic aspects

The purpose of this thesis is mainly to provide an overview and an initial foray into this subject. No deeper syntactic classification or analysis has been carried out. After a quick survey of the results, it became clear that this would be beyond the scope of a bachelor’s thesis, especially considering the fact that this particular subject seems largely unexplored (more on this in section 2.2), and that this study involved the creation of a corpus.

Furthermore , headline language, with its many omitted words, unusual structures and unorthodox use of punctuation to represent words, makes syntactic classification using common grammatical approaches very complicated. It would no doubt be interesting to perform a syntactic classification and analysis of the corpus assembled for this thesis, and perhaps this would be necessary for a deeper understanding of this feature, but that will be left to future research.

2 Background

As Ingrid Mårdh points out, newspaper headlines is a text type with huge exposure all over the world, and is therefore an interesting study topic from a linguistic point of view; yet there are few linguistic analyses of English-language newspaper headlines extant (1980:11). One might think that this apparent void has been filled in the 32 years since Mårdh’s study, but according to another, recently published thesis on the subject of newspaper headlines, the field remains relatively unexplored (Imicciulla 2011:1 ). Since this is only a Bachelor’s thesis, I am not able to here voice a very informed opinion on this matter, but in my search for previous research, very little has indeed been found.

Furthermore , the specific topic for this thesis seems almost completely unexplored from an academic point of view. No explicit references to the phenomenon of asyndetic coordination in newspaper headlines has been found in the academic texts examined during the initial research for this thesis. Even in journalistic style guides, only a few references to this phenomenon have been found.

Yet , the phenomenon itself is not unknown, and is the subject of occasional discussion, as was discovered through some initial internet searches. In this section, what has been found on the subject is presented, along with some grammatical background and a brief introduction to the newspaper headline. This background section is somewhat lengthy, since it contains both deepened arguments for the aim and scope of this essay and some comments on the initial research conducted for this thesis.

For the background information on newspaper headlines, I have relied mainly on one doctoral dissertation (Mårdh) and one influential American editor’s guide (Harrigan & Dunlap) to provide both an academic and a professional viewpoint.

2.1 Coordination and markedness

Chalker & Weiner  defines coordination as “The joining together of two equal units, usually by means of a conjunction” (1994:97 ). This is explained further by Greenbaum & Quirkwho distinguish coordination from subordination in that the elements in coordination must be “on the same syntactic level” (1990:262 ). This can be illustrated by the two following sentences:

(2) I told her and she went home

(3) I told her that she should go home

In (2), the clause she went home is independent from the clause I told her and could be written as a separate sentence, but in (3), the clause that she should go home is subordinate to the clause I told her since it acts as a direct object in that clause.

However , coordination can not only occur on the clause level as in examples (2–3), but can also be used to join lesser constituents on an equal level (phrases), which can have different syntactic functions:

(4) It was a cold and rainy night

(5) Osama and George ran around in the forest

In (4), the two adjective phrases, cold and rainy, both function as premodifiers to the head of the noun phrase which forms the complement in this clause (cold and rainy night) and are thus on the same level. In (5), the two noun phrases Osama and George both act as subjects in the clause, and are thus on the same level.

It is possible to analyze a construction such as (5) in two ways, either as an elliptical version of coordination of two main clauses, or as a single clause with two coordinated subjects (Greenbaum & Quirk 1990:271–272). (5) could thus be analyzed as:

(6) George ran around in the forest + Osama ran around in the forest (ellipsis of coordinated clauses)

(7) George + Osama ran around in the forest (coordinated subjects)

For the purposes of this thesis, all shared constructions such as (5) are analyzed as coordinated clause constituents rather than elliptical coordinated clauses and therefore included in the material. An example of another such construction is verbs Restrictive clausesthat share the same subject[/annotax]:

(8) George ran around in the forest and picked berries

Coordination can be achieved either with or without a coordinating conjunction, such as or, but or and. A coordination with a conjunction can be referred to as syndetic, and one without a conjunction as asyndetic. Chalker & Weiner write about asyndetic coordination that “Such coordination is less usual than coordination with a conjunction and is therefore stylistically marked.” (1994:38). Greenbaum & Quirk write that “When two units are linked by and or or, it is usual to insert the coordinator once only – between the last two units” (1990:262). These patterns are thus not stylistically marked:

(9) Local man loses pants, hat and life

(10) Local man loses pants and life

However , the following construction would be considered stylistically marked:

(11) ?Local man loses pants, life

A lengthy discussion of markedness and what would be considered marked and by whom is beyond the scope of this thesis and marked can also mean different things depending on the context. I use the term marked in this thesis to signify a construction that would, in formal writing, be considered unusual, or that deviates from the norm. Apart from the grammatical works referenced, I have used my own sense of what is marked, or even what I consider well-formed. I would not only argue that most speakers of English would find the construction in (11) marked if encountered in formal writing, but that they would, in fact, not find it well-formed. This goes for most constructions with only two asyndetically conjoined phrases. The one exception I have found which is relevant to this thesis is coordinated adjectives acting as combinatory, qualifying premodifiers:

(12) We expected hot and dry weather

(13) We expected hot, dry weather

Although asyndetic coordination in this form of construction, as in (13), is probably not considered marked by most speakers, it has been included in the corpus for two reasons: Firstly, since this is a category where both forms could be considered equally acceptable in formal written language, I found it interesting to see if this category was an exception, that is, if newspapers that avoided the (otherwise highly marked) asyndetic coordination investigated in this thesis would perhaps at least use it for this construction. Secondly, the examples found of this construction turned out to be very few and did therefore not significantly affect the overall result.

What has not been included is the coordination of entire, independent main clauses, such as examples (14–15).

(14) George ran around in the forest and Osama picked berries.

(15) George ran around in the forest, Osama picked berries.

I would argue that this is a less marked and more acceptable form in formal writing than example (11), but the main reason for not including coordination of entire, independent main clauses is that in such constructions, asyndetic coordination in headline language is very commonly accepted and uncontroversial, the typical example being:

(16) 5 dead, 11 wounded in accident

The reason for excluding all examples with more than two coordinated elements, such as (9) is that, as observed above, this construction follows a separate pattern, where a combination of asyndetic and syndetic coordination is the norm. Including such constructions would therefore significantly complicate the study and draw focus away from the main subject.

2.2 The newspaper headline

The newspaper headline is a specialized form of text, where utility to a large extent determines the form. Although most literate adults are familiar with this text type, understand its function, and may even have reflected at one time or another on the fact that headlines do not follow normal grammatical standards, a brief description of the language of the newspaper headline is necessary, as a basis for this thesis.

The main functions of newspaper headlines are to visually split the newspaper page into distinct units (articles), provide some kind of summary of the content of each specific article, and/or to evoke interest or curiosity in the reader (Mårdh 1980:15–16). However , as Harrigan & Dunlap observes, “An accurate and interesting headline […] is no good unless it fits the space” (2004:267). The typographic restrictions set by the printed newspaper have also been an important historical factor for shaping the look and language of the headline; the desired size of the typeface, combined with the space available on the page, may influence and restrict the choice of words as well as grammatical structures (Mårdh 1980: 33–35).

These factors have lead to the emergence of various headline style elements, some of which are very common, and others that are more specific for a certain newspaper or a certain time and place. Most major newspapers have their own style guides, which may or may not address issues regarding headlines. These, along with formal or informal policies, are what ultimately determine the look of a particular newspaper’s headlines.

When Harrigan & Dunlop write that “Both the style and the function of headlines have changed over the years and style is still far from standardized” (2004:257), it is rather an understatement, as can be illustrated with two headlines from the corpus compiled for this thesis:

(17) Are Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens even acting on the set of Spring Breakers anymore or are they just on holiday? [DMINP21]

(18) Dad, stepmom charged in 1994 suitcase slaying of Toronto teen [TSNP1]

In the above examples, (17) clearly wants to evoke interest and curiosity, but seems unconcerned about brevity, and the headline has no marked elements; there is nothing in it that one would not expect to find in normal written (or even spoken) language. The headline is also formed as a question, something avoided by many newspapers. In this corpus, 7 out of 12 newspapers did not have a single headline formed as a question, and they were very rare in most of the others.

In contrast , (18) is terse, packed with facts, and has stylistic elements that would not be considered well-formed in formal, written text. There is no finite verb (some finite form of the verb to be is normally needed in front of “charged”) and the article the before “1994 suitcase slaying” as well as the article a before “Toronto teen” is lacking. The omission of articles and the verb to be in (18) are headline language features probably recognized by many. They were found by Mårdh to be common (1980:182), and both are also mentioned as examples of “…saving space and keeping the writing succinct” as part of the “headline style” by Harrigan & Dunlap (2004:267).

While the lack of the verb to be and articles is / areis a common feature and one that most newspapers probably find uncontroversial, the comma between “Dad” and “stepmom” in (18) is a feature that is used by some newspapers and avoided by others[/annotax] . No authoritative source that dates or explains the emergence of this “headline comma” has been found, but it is easy to see that it saves space compared to an and, and therefore leaves room for longer content-words to catch the reader’s attention.

Only two explicit references to this phenomenon were found in the journalistic literature examined for this thesis. Harrigan & Dunlap mention that “[a] comma may be substituted for and when one subject goes with two verbs or when two subjects go with one verb”. The Guardian Style Guide, however , urges the writer to “…resist the temptation to replace ‘and’ with a comma: ‘Blair and Brown agree euro deal’ not ‘Blair, Brown agree euro deal’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/ styleguide/h under “headlines”).

These relatively meager findings are nevertheless interesting, since Harrigan & Dunlop represent an American perspective and The Guardian Style Guide represents a British perspective. Some discussions on internet forums found in the preliminary research indicated a US–UK divide, and these two references fit this picture. The BBC college of journalism online tutorial touches on the subject, calling it “the news headline comma” but only says that “This style should not be replicated in more formal writing” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/apps/tutor/html/commas/index.html) and does not comment on its use in actual headlines. Other style guides talk about how to use commas correctly in text, but do not mention headlines specifically. Mårdh does not discuss or mention this feature.

In an attempt to get some comments directly from the newspapers in this study (see section 3.3) I sent emails to relevant editorial staff of all newspapers, asking if they followed any specific style guide or had any guidelines for using or not using the comma form. Only the Telegraph and Washington Post answered. The Telegraph referred to their online style guide, which did not address this particular phenomenon. The multiplatform editing chief at the Washington Post, however , took the time to explain and justify the use of the comma form, and argued that it was only a space-saving device that allowed for other words to be longer, since they want single-line headlines online and have space constraints in print. He mentioned the use of a colon to represent says and concluded: “We do use the word ‘and’ and ‘says’ when space allows, but the comma and colon are widely used punctuation marks that enable headline writers at many papers to get the most information we can in a limited amount of space.” This email is found in its entirety in Appendix 2.

A final aspect worth mentioning in this context is the question of how headlines in online newspapers may differ from those in printed newspapers. Here, I can only point to the fact that although space is essentially “free” on a webpage and there are no costs for ink or paper, and no limitations in terms of a set number of pages, online newspaper headlines still typically need to follow a certain page layout. More importantly, they still serve exactly the same purpose when it comes to catching the reader’s eye, evoking interest and summarizing the story. The one added function is that the online headlines need to include the right “keywords” to be easily found by search engines.