Headlines and Periods: Writing Best Practices

June 1, 2020

One of life’s great questions 🙂 – Should a period/full stop be put at the end of a headline or heading? Printed and online newspaper and magazine headlines don’t seem to do it. But what about advertisements and media releases – Should the headlines finish with a period/full stop?

Newspaper headlines

Above image: Front page headline and subheading from the New York Times, 17 April 2020.

The above image shows a New York Times front page headline and subheading. No full period/full stop for the headline. But the subheading is treated as a sentence, with a period/full stop.

Sample local newspaper front page headline doesn’t include periods/full stops, either, as below:

Media release heading

Above image: Headline of Raytheon media release, 20 April 2020, published in PR Newswire.

No one knew the answer to the question of whether a full stop/period is appropriate in a headline, so legendary advertising figure David Ogilvy asked Colin Wheildon to research this for him. Would a dot at the end of a headline sentence really make any difference to the all-important measures of reader recall and understanding? Wheildon was editor of Australia’s largest motoring publication with one million readers and had researched many aspects of typography and layout.

To find out whether the full stop in a headline affects readers’ comprehension, four different advertising pages were printed, with each design being in two formats – one with the headline full-stopped and the other without. The content of the two advertisement designs was identical, mostly comprising text. These sample headlines are not obtained from printed advertisements, but the response of readers would be similar.

Online business magazine headings

Image: Sample headline from the Harvard Business Review – without a period (full stop).

The only time punctuation would be appropriate would be to use an exclamation mark or question mark, or if the headline comprised two sentences as shown in the image below.

Image: Sample headline from the Harvard Business Review showing a period (full stop) where the headline comprises two sentences.

Research results

Interestingly, there were differences in comprehension between the headlines:

  • Headline without full stop 71% good comprehension
  • Headline with full stop 58% good comprehension

The lesson from this is never to use full stops or periods in headlines one sentence long.

After the project was completed, the research participants were questioned on their reactions to the material. Those who read the headlines with full stops were conscious of the punctuation mark, and commented on it.

22% of the total sample said they realized they were reading an advertisement when they came to a full stop, even though they were not aware of the content at that point.

10% of the sample indicated this discovery reduced their intention to concentrate on reading the material.

12% of the sample indicated they found the use of the full stops unnatural, and wondered why they had been used. 6% of the sample said the full stop indicated to them that there was no need to read any more of the message. The headline told them enough.

Reader feedback seemed to indicate that full stops, as their name suggests, tend to halt the flow of the eye movement of the reader whereas you want readers to continue to the body text. Comments:

  • The full stop tended to pull up some readers with a jerk, and indicated to them there is no need to read on.
  • The full stop indicated to some readers that what followed would be advertising material, and in their minds, not as worthwhile as editorial material.

(Although Colin Wheildon’s original book is out of print, a more recent version is available under the title: Type & Layout: are you communicating or just making pretty shapes? Author Colin Wheildon, publisher The Worsley Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2007.)

News subheadings

Without going into a detailed trawl through various media, the question arises whether subheadings should have full stops/periods. I don’t have a clear answer on this. The New York Times seems to use headlines with no period or full stop and a capital letter to start each word, while it uses subheadings that do have a period or full stop and all words are in lower case. Examples:

Above two images: New York Times, 28 September 2021.

Email subject lines

Absolutely no one puts a period or full stop at the end of an email subject line. The only punctuation marks in the unopened 500 emails in my inbox today (not all are today’s emails!) are these: ? ! ‘ and “.

Simple techniques for writing strong headlines

On the subject of writing headlines, you may be interested in reading my article on simple techniques for writing strong headlines.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

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