Verbs are what make newspaper headlines attractive to would-be buyers

Saturday December 2 2017

Kenyans reading newspapers

Kenyans reading newspapers that headline on the former US President Barack Obama's re-election on November 7, 2012 in Nairobi. PHOTO | SIMON MAINA | AFP 

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A page 12 headline in the Nation of November 30 announced: “Bid by family to skip Sh4m bill, collect kin’s body fails”.  Thus the “bid” had two purposes:  to “skip a bill” – whatever that means – and to collect a dead relative’s body (from the morgue).

Note that bid, the subject of that statement, is 10 words away from the objective verb fails that it was intended to control.  Surely, the “bid” had “failed”.  But a headline writer must remember (a) that what the company is trying to sell is a newspaper, (b) that, in it, the headline is the sales gimmick number one and (c) that the finite verb is the essence of every news headline.

The finite – namely, the conjugated – verb is the name of what happened, which is what your company is in the market to sell.  A verb is said to be finite whenever its potential for grammar work is drastically circumscribed by confining it to a tense, a number and a gender.


Thus to conjugate a verb is to express it in a form in line with the number (singular or plural) of the noun or pronoun deploying  the verb,  with its person (first, second or third),  with its tense (past, present or future) and  (in many languages) with the gender (masculine, feminine or neutral) of the noun or pronoun deploying it.

Please remember that, in English and certain other European languages, these circumstances (gender, number and tense) may cause drastic changes in the form (spelling and pronunciation) of a verb.

That is the crux of headline writing.  Exciting details under a headline are what a passerby hopes will be profitable if the headline compels him or her into buying a newspaper copy.


For many readers, however, the question may even be elementary:  What is a “finite verb”?  In a sentence, it is the expression of what really happened. As everybody should know, what happened is the stock-in-trade of every commercial newspaper. The finite verb is, therefore, the sales gimmick of every news headline.  

Without such a verb, you have no real story. For such a verb is the kernel of the information that you set out to offer in the marketplace from your office either as a newspaper stakeholder or  as a newsroom operator. In short, such a verb is what makes the headline not only compellingly attractive to the would-be newspaper consumer but also so profitable for the shareholder. 


For the mere sight of an active verb will compel the passer-by to dip the finger into the pocket or the handbag for change with which to buy a copy of your newspaper. In short, active verbs are what primarily sell your story and make your newspaper business so viable.

The finite verb is the name of what somebody or something did or underwent. It is what happened. 

It is for that very reason that every newspaper headline requires a crisp, unmistakable and very active headline and a clear and powerful verb controlling it.

Philip Ochieng is a retired journalist. email: [email protected]