Local Man Loses Pants, Life. Ch. 5

5 Summary and conclusions

The main finding of this study  is that asyndetic coordination of two phrase-level elements in headlines is very commonly, but far from exclusively, used in the US , Canadian and Australian newspapers, while almost completely avoided in the UK newspapers.

The and form dominance was much greater in the UK newspapers than the comma form was in the other newspapers. This can, to some extent, be explained by the fact that the comma form is not always possible, while the and form always is . But a closer look at the 73 examples of the and form among the comma form-preferring newspapers indicated that other factors played a bigger part; only in about a dozen of these headlines did replacing the and with a comma seem forced or impossible. In fact, no particular trend was found among the and form examples in the comma form-preferring newspapers.

Since only Washington Post provided their policy, stating that they accepted both forms and that it was simply a matter of space, it is not possible to draw further conclusions about the reasons for choosing one form over another in a given headline. One possible factor behind the existence of and form examples among the newspapers that clearly preferred comma is that it may be easier to completely avoid the marked comma form (as in the case of the UK newspapers) than to consistently use it whenever possible.

Although the only direct answer from the newspapers involved referred to the comma form as a space-saving device, this study indicates that it has more likely become something of a headline “style”, since it is sometimes avoided in long headlines and used in very short headlines. When looking at phrase type, the overall distribution trend was remarkably similar between the two forms, but when looking exclusively at the countries that preferred the comma form , a pattern emerged, where the comma form was more consistently used with verb phrases than with noun phrases (even more so in adjective phrases, but here, the lack of examples made it hard to draw statistical conclusions). This may be related to the fact that coordination in verb phrases can express causal, temporal and other aspects not present in noun phrases. Because the prototypical meaning of and is, arguably, that of a simple, non-causal and non-temporal coordination, while a comma does not have this prototypical meaning, the comma form may look better and less “flat” than the and form. In some cases, although and was probably the only one -word alternative, other constructions involving more words might also have been used to better express the causal and temporal relations between the phrases.

Finally, no particular trend emerged when comparing “serious” and “tabloid” newspapers, except for the fact that the New York Post was the only newspaper in this study that used the &-form. This form was found to give a more informal impression, which fit with the “tabloid” image of this publication.

All in all, this study – while providing some hard data – has opened up more avenues of further study than it has provided definitive answers. It would be interesting to see a more comprehensive study of how different headline-specific features are distributed across the English-speaking world, and if it is possible to say which countries exert the greatest linguistic influence in this domain. Syntactic analysis would also be interesting. Some of the findings of this study, particularly those regarding the verb phrase, suggest the possibility of a more complex and interesting context. The newspaper headline is a place where unique grammatical conventions emerge, shaped by the need for brevity and focus, and an area where it is far from clear what role usual notions of “markedness” play. Considering this, and the fact that the headline still seems to be an underresearched area, it seems like a worthy subject of further grammatical research.