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The issue of whether headlines and "headlinese" is on-topic came up because of the question We The People Petition on. I have to admit that I don't think it was a great question and that I'm a little conflicted about whether analyzing the grammar and vocabulary in a headline is something that would be a good use of the community's time.

On one hand, news headlines and news articles are, in my opinion, important for English learners to be able to understand and I think they are common sources for questions likely to get asked. On the other hand, headlines by their very nature are non-standard English. They aren't complete sentences, the language is contorted to be overly concise, and there's a huge dollop of idiom and wordplay thrown in to grab the native speaker's attention.

I feel that they are on-topic under the "Practical problems you encounter while learning English" part of the "What topics can I ask about here?". I think there is some value to helping learners decipher headlines and understand what parts of them aren't standard English because a grammar reference or dictionary isn't going to be that helpful. I do think though that the question I linked above had way too much abstract discussion to keep it squarely in the "practical problem" category, so I don't think that's the question I would hold up as the shining example of when a headline would be on-topic.

What do y'all think?

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  • Well maybe I misunderstood @FumbleFingers, but I got the impression that he felt that all headline grammar questions should be off-topic and I thought it would be worth discussing more broadly. I have to agree with him that an in-depth analysis of one headline's grammatical implications for all of English is a little far afield. – ColleenV Oct 4 '14 at 1:25
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    Personally, I think headline questions (something that one encounters in newspapers and online) is on topic - you're likely to see it, and should be able to understand it. – jimsug Oct 4 '14 at 8:11
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    I don't mind a question about headlines, so long as the O.P. recognizes that headline writers aren't constrained by general rules of sentence grammar, and often value conciseness over clarity. In cases like, "Why doesn't this headline have a predicate?" or, "Is this headline missing a preposition?" where the answer is simply, "Because it's a headline," I'd generally be in favor of closing the question. But headline questions needn't be closed by default. Note also that Fumble's initial comment was autocopied from his customize justification for a close vote on that particular question. – J.R. Oct 4 '14 at 8:39
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Headlinese is closely related to Standard English. Here's how it's described by Wikipedia:

Because space is limited, headlines are written in a compressed telegraphic style, using special syntactic conventions:

  • Forms of the verb "to be" are omitted.
  • Articles are usually omitted.
  • Most verbs are in the simple present tense, e.g. "Governor signs bill".
  • The future is expressed as "to" followed by a verb, e.g. "Governor to sign bill".
  • In the US (but not the UK), conjunctions are often replaced by a comma, as in "Bush, Blair laugh off microphone mishap".
  • To save space, a long word sometimes replaced by a shorter word with not quite the same meaning, e.g. "attack" to mean "criticize".

Headlines are generally sentences or noun phrases.

Of these, the two main departures from Standard English are the omission of articles and forms of be, while the use of the simple present, to-future, and asyndetic coordination can all be described as characteristic style choices.

And that's all there is to it. We're done describing it! Headlinese is highly conventionalized and closely related to Standard English. It's not haphazard or ill-defined―after all, it's meant to be understood by English speakers! And that wouldn't be possible if the grammar were constantly reinvented on the spot. It is true that headlines are occasionally poorly written and hard to understand, but the same is true of Standard English sentences, and we haven't yet decided that Standard English is off-topic.

What's more, reading headlines is a skill that almost every learner needs. Excluding questions about headlines from ELL categorically wouldn't help anyone; it would only hurt the site and its users. Let's not make that mistake.

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