Archive for July, 2012

The Rhythm Of Headlines

July 21, 2012

By Nirmaldasan


—  This article appeared in the January-March 2012 issue of Vidura, a quarterly journal of the Press Institute of India:

Whether it be news headline or feature headline, though one is usually factual and the other is often figurative, all headlines without exception have more to do with verse than with prose. Every headline is a poetic line. A badly scripted headline is prosaic, but an effective headline is rhythmic!

Many of the headlines that we read in newspapers allude to book or film titles and play with proverbial quotes or idiomatic expressions. Here are just three imaginary examples, with the allusions in brackets:

1. Murder on the Pandyan Express (Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express)

2. To err is humour (Alexander Pope’s ‘To err is human …’)

3. A tale of two children (Charles Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities)

To grasp the rhythm of the above headlines, we need to look at the three elements of the poetic line: syllable, stress and foot.


Though children are taught how to count syllables in school, they soon forget because they haven’t been told that pronouncing words is as important as getting the spelling right. Teachers themselves need to understand that it is the syllable that determines the subtle rhythm of English prose.

Each word consists of one or more syllables. According to the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (8th edition), a syllable is ‘any of the units into which a word is divided, containing a vowel sound and usually one or more consonants’. In determining the number of syllables, we always go by the ear and not the eye. For example, the word ‘rhythm’ has no vowel letter but has one vowel sound; ‘soar’ has two vowel letters but only one vowel sound; and ‘beauteous’ has six vowel letters but only two vowel sounds. Based on the number of vowel sounds, words may be monosyllabic or disyllabic or polysyllabic.

By using contractions, the number of syllables may be reduced or increased for the sake of rhythm. The disyllabic phrase is not can be reduced to the monosyllabic isn’t. By the same token, the monosyllabic I’ve can be increased to the disyllabic I have.

Let us return to the imaginary headlines to do a syllable count:

1. Mur/der/ on/ the/ Pand/yan/ Ex/press (eight)

2. To/ err/ is/ hu/mour (five)

3. A/ tale/ of / two/ chil/dren (six)


Syllables combine to form words, phrases and clauses. In the process, some syllables acquire conventional emphasis called stress. Those syllables that are uttered lightly without stress are called slack syllables. The alternation of some stresses and some slacks creates rhythm.

Prefixes and suffixes usually are slack. So are the articles ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’. Words that end in –ion such as ‘derivation’, ‘duplication’ and ‘faction’ take the stress on the penultimate syllable set in bold type. Some words have their conventional stress on the syllable preceding certain suffixes. Examples: diabolic, inimical, precious, initially, enmity.

Sometimes, a shift in the stress can alter meaning. In ‘Stress, Intelligibility and the English Language’ (Eclectic Representations, May 2011), Dr. Franklin Daniel writes: “Great care should be taken to pay particular attention to the role of variation of quality in those words which are distinguished from others by a shift of accent i.e. in the verb and noun/ adjective function. For example, the words ‘desert,’ ‘conduct,’ ‘convict,’ and ‘object’ should be stressed on the first syllables if they are used as nouns or adjectives and stressed on their second syllables if they are used as verbs.”

Now we may code the two types of syllable as ‘ta’ for slack and ‘tum’ for stress. Time to return again to our imaginary headlines to look at stress:

1. Murder on the Pandyan Express

(tumta tum ta  tumta tumta)

2. To err is humour

(ta tum ta tumta)

3. A tale of two children (or) A tale of two children

(ta tum ta tum tata (or) ta tum ta ta tumta)


A headline may be divided into feet just like a poetic line. Each foot usually has two or three syllables. Here are the basic patterns of the disyllabic foot: tatum or tumta or tata or tumtum. And here are the basic patterns of the trisyllabic foot: tatatum or tatumta or tumtata or tumtatum or tatata or tumtumtum. Any pattern may be accepted if it sounds rhythmic to the headline writer’s ear.

The distribution of stresses and slacks creates rising rhythm (tatum or tatatum) and falling rhythm (tumta or tumtata). It is also possible to think of a rising-falling combination called rocking rhythm (tatumta or tumtatum).

The four traditional patterns of a poetic line are the following:

Iambic: tatum tatum tatum tatum … (rising)

Trochaic: tumta tumta tumta tumta … (falling)

Anapaestic: tatatum tatatum tatatum tatatum … (galloping)

Dactylic: tumtata tumtata tumtata tumtata … (marching)

Rhythm doesn’t respect word boundaries. A foot may consist of syllables from many words. So when a headline is divided into feet, one must try to look for a recurring pattern. For the last time, let us go back to the imaginary headlines:

1. Murder / on the / Pandyan / Express (falling rhythm)

(tumta / tumta /  tumta / tumta)

2. To err / is humour (rising and rocking rhythm)

(tatum / tatumta)

3. A tale / of two / children (rising and rocking rhythm)

(or) A tale / of two chil/dren (rising and rocking rhythm)

(tatum tatum tata (or) tatum tatatumta)

Final tip

Headline writers need to read a lot of verse and make it a habit to hum any of the several tunes such as the famous Britannia Marie jingle ‘tumtatatum’ before they match sound and sense in their rhythmic headlines. Remember, it is mainly the rhythm that makes a headline persuasive and memorable. The Rhythm Of Headlines — tatum tatumta!