A contrastive analysis of English and Persian newspaper headlines.

Author:Khodabandeh, F.


Considering the absence of contrasting English and Persian newspaper headlines, the present study was an attempt to conduct a contrastive analysis between the newspaper headlines of English and Persian languages in order to find the major similarities and differences between them. The analysis was based on a one-week corpus of the headlines of English and Persian languages. Utilizing CA, the researcher analyzed the variability of syntactic and lexical features across and within the English and Persian newspaper headlines. It was concluded that the headlines of English and Persian languages were similar in using dynamic verbs, active voice, short words, declarative sentences, finite clauses, and simple sentences and different in the use of tense forms, headline types, modification, and omission of words. This study has pedagogical implications for teaching journalistic English and translation.

Keywords: Contrastive analysis, headlines, syntactic and lexical features.


    Conventionally, it is believed that newspapers have more readers than any other kind of written text. According to Van Dijk (1986: 156), "for most citizens, news is perhaps the type of written discourse with which they are confronted most frequently." In the newspaper it is the headlines that have the highest readership. It summarizes the content of a story, and entices an audience into reading the article. According to Ungerer (2000: 48), "a headline describes the essence of a complicated news story in a few words. It informs quickly and accurately and arouses the reader's curiosity." News headlines are particularly important for the way readers comprehend a news text, they are markers that monitor attention, perception and the reading process (Van Dijk 1988).

    Many students of English find that newspaper headlines are especially difficult to understand. Obviously, it is not just a matter of vocabulary; even the style of writing is different from any other text they have met in their studies. The language of headlines is special and has its own characteristics on the lexical, syntactic, and rhetorical levels for its brevity, attractiveness, and clarity (Reah 1998). These language features pose a great challenge to foreign learners of English when they begin to read English newspapers. This is hardly surprising for, as Waterhouse (as cited in Sanderson 1999: 29) points out, "this genre of language is not one that people actually use in normal, everyday speech." There is, however, a clear pattern in this special genre; once the rules and tactics are understood a lot of difficulties may disappear.

    The key to ease the difficulty of this special genre lies in the comparison between foreign and native languages (Connor 1996). Thereby, a systematic contrastive analysis of English and Persian headlines was conducted to investigate the similarities and differences between the newspaper headlines of English and Persian languages.


    Headlines are obviously one of the striking features of modern newspapers. Therefore it is not surprising that they have been studied quite extensively not only by journalists but also by linguists. Some of the few existing linguistic studies of headlines will be reviewed below.

    Straumann's (1935) study of headline English is undoubtedly pioneer work. His approach was to treat the language of headlines as an autonomous language. He classifieds headlines in terms of neutrals, nominals, verbals and particles. The first section of his classification contains words in their common form. In the following sections he arranges them in s-forms, and in three variables, semi-variables and invariables. Classification is further arranged in d-forms, ing forms, ly-, er- and (e) st-forms.

    The complexity of headlines has been investigated by Brisau (1969). He measured complexity in terms of clauses, which were thus singled out from other units as a gauge of complexity. In 3000 headlines Brisau found 264 examples of headlines containing two or more clauses, which was less than 10% of the total number. Brisau concluded that more complex structures than two very simple clauses linked together rarely occurred in headlines. He mentioned, however, that the linguistic make-up of the headline could vary widely from one newspaper to another.

    Mardh (1980) offers an exhaustive study of the characteristic features of the headlines of a range of English newspapers. She identifies the following linguistic features as typical of headlines in English newspapers: the omission of articles; the omission of verbs and of auxiliaries (the verb "to be" for example); nominalizations; the frequent use of complex noun phrases in subject position (in theme position); adverbial headlines, with the omission of both verb and subject; the use of short words ("bid" instead of "attempt"); the widespread use of puns, word play and alliteration; the importance of word order, with the most important items placed first, even, in some cases, a verb; and independent "wh" constructions not linked to a main clause (an example: Why the French don't give a damn), a form not found in standard English.

    Van Dijk (1988) analyzed a five-decker from the New York Times. He sees the journalistic process as beginning with a headline and working through lead to body copy. He analyzed over 400 headlines in the Dutch press reporting the 1985 Tamil panic, an occasion of racial tensions between the Dutch and immigrant groups. He found that the authorities dominated first position in the headline, with active verbs. When the disadvantaged Tamils were mentioned first, the verb tended to be passive.

    Kniffka's (as cited in Bell 1991) detailed comparison of leads and headlines found a high level of structural correspondence between the two. The subeditor tends to reproduce the syntactic patterns of the lead in the headline. Kniffka (1980) found that the presence of active or passive voice in the lead was carried over to the headline. According to Kniffka, headline structures appear to be very regular across languages. He confirmed his analysis of both German and American English news texts, finding their leads and headlines structurally identical. The regularity is so consistent that he concludes there is a shared international grammar of lead and headline-writing.

    Mouillaud and Tetu (as cited in Develotte & Rechniewski 2000), analysing Le Monde, suggest the following features as typical of headlines: the suppression of spatial and particularly temporal markers; the use of the present tense of verbs (where they are used) as opposed to--or in place of--any other tenses; the replacement of verbs by nominalisations; the suppression of declarative verbs and the disappearance of signs of speech (quotation marks; personal pronouns).

    Scollon (2000), in his study of five days of three editions of the same newspaper in its Chinese and English editions, argues that the English headlines, following on general western journalistic practice put the main point right in the headline in what has also been called a deductive rhetorical mode. The Chinese headline, on the other hand, uses the headline to establish the setting but do not provide any further information about the content of the talks, which is the inductive ordering of the topics elsewhere found in contrast between Chinese and English language news stories. In other words the major difference lies in whether the headline focuses directly on the central topic found within the body of the story or the setting.

    Sullet-Nylander (2000) described and analysed the textual "genre" of the French newspaper headlines. According to him, the macrosyntactic configuration of a press headline can be represented in four types of phrasal constructions, one of which is considered relatively "unmarked." The three other types namely: parataxis, noun phrase + prepositional and single nonverbal phrase are considered more specific of headlines. Compared with similar kinds of utterances such as book titles or captions, the complete sentence is much more frequent in newspaper headlines. His thesis shows that a headline can be characterized by regular linguistic/textual features, even though each newspaper has diverse ways of constructing and staging the news in its headlines, depending on the communicative functions assigned to them. As mentioned in the literature review of this study, some contrastive studies of headlines have raised the question of whether similar features can be found in varying cultures and languages. Considering the absence of such an analysis related to English and Persian, this study intended to investigate the application of syntactic and lexical features in newspaper headlines in order to uncover to what extent the two languages were compatible in these domains.


    The information regarding the research method, materials and procedures is presented below.

    3.1. Materials

    To carry out the comparison between the headlines, an English and a Persian news site were randomly selected from among all available online news sources from the Internet, namely Yahoo news for the English headlines and IRIB news for the Persian ones. The headlines issued during a seven-day period from November 29 to December 05, 2003. The number of English and Persian headlines arrived at a total of 792 and 725 from the two sources respectively.

    3.2. Procedure

    This research was directed toward studying the syntactic and lexical features of English and Persian corpora in such a way that by a systematic comparison, the differences and similarities between the sample headlines of the two languages would be identified. At the start, the investigation began with the description of the basic units of analysis in the English headline structures (categories, word classes, constructions) and continued with the analysis of the Persian headlines. In doing so, for the analysis of the structure of English headlines, the...

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