Which of the following would you expect to see in a news headline?
- The King dies
- The King has died
- The King is dying
- The King died
- The King will have been dying
(I was being silly with number 5!)
Let’s consider the grammar first of all from the context of natural disasters. We’ll return to the King of Pop later!
Recently I was reviewing tenses with students when I saw this news item and remembered the grammatical quagmire I’m struggling to drag students through. How to explain tenses in news articles?! I’ll have a go, but feel free to correct me (add comments) if I’m wrong.
- Deadly magnitude 6.5 earthquake hits Aceh in Indonesia.
News headlines often feature present simple tense. Even after an event is ‘finished’, its effects may be being felt right now. And since news is supposed to be ‘new’, the ‘nowness’ of simple present communicates ‘newness’.
- An undersea earthquake off Indonesia’s northern Aceh province has killed at least 52 people.
Verbs in the body of news items are often written in present perfect tense. This is the essential function of present perfect – to highlight a connection between past and present. Events that appear in the news often have immediate repercussions that are felt in the present.
- The magnitude 6.5 quake struck just off the north-east coast of Sumatra island where dozens of buildings have collapsed and many people are feared trapped under rubble.
Events leading up to the main news event are often written using past simple tense. They may be coincidental, or they may have contributed directly to the main event. Notice that this sentence also features present perfect and present simple tense, for the reasons described above.
The King of Pop
Returning to Michael Jackson – any idea which headline fits best?
(Answers in comments below!)
Please share news stories that illustrate these uses of these and other tenses. Feel free to add links and post comments in the box below. I will attempt to respond to any questions! As I say, it’s a quagmire!