Headline : Diplomatic sherpas feel the strain in surfeit of summits

 Newspaper headlines are usually written by a special headlines subeditor who makes them effective choosing catchy words, short sentence structures, metaphoric words and other rhetorical devices. These latter often make headlines obscure and difficult to understand but also intriguing, reflecting at the same time our cultural expectations. That’s the reason why headlines can be considered as a self-genre presenting some typical features.

For example, a TOP DOWN approach to the above mentioned headline will be focused on its non-linguistic features as the general layout, the print size and the type.

As for the layout, the first thing to notice is the space occupied by the headline on the page. As we can see, the whole text is inserted in a sort of framework which limits the boundaries of the written characters, so the clause forming the headline has been divided into three lines, each bearing one of its main constituents ( NP+VP+NP). As for print size, colour and type, black bold characters and capital letters immediately identify this clause as belonging to the genre of headlines.

On the other hand, a BOTTOM UP approach will highlight the syntactical structure and the  rhetorical devices exploited to reach a particular communicative goal : to attract and retain the reader’s attention arousing his/her curiosity and interest.

The presence of rhetorical devices accounts for the pragmatic function of this headline which invites the reader to distinguish between what is said and what is meant, between the denotative and connotative meaning of the words.

In fact, understanding the extra-meaning inside this textual genre implies the reader’s ability to go beyond the limits of what is said to infer what is meant. Of course, the journalist uses these rhetorical devices to produce a certain effect on the reader , but he counts on what Grice calls the Co-operative Principle. This means that the communicative aim is reached only if the addressee shares the addresser’s general knowledge which allows him to recognize his intention. Moreover, if we take into account Halliday’s view of language as a system of meaning involving the relationship between its participants, we will see that meaning results from the interaction between them, in what he calls the TRANSITIVITY SYSTEM. Among the micro-functions of language there is the one which allows language to create images in order to visually represent something through words, so that the reader can “see” what the writer is describing. A clear example of this linguistic function in this headline can be found at a PHONOLOGICAL-LEXICAL  LEVEL through the alliterative phonological  value of  the /s/ sound in the initial syllables in strain, surfeit, summits, which activates a metaphoric connection between the sherpas– Hymalayan mountain guides known for their resistance to physical fatigue-, and the diplomatic sherpas, the diplomatic officials who are exhausted by an excess of summit meetings.

 Lexical Level

As for the word summits, we can say that it is a clipped word since it stands for summit meetings. This lets us understand that it represents the key-word used by the media to activate their metaphorical discourse on sherpas and make the headline interesting and catchy.


This headline, taken from The Times in its broadsheet format, is a simple Clause made up of a Noun Phrase ( diplomatic = pre-modifier;  sherpas = head) which is the Subject, a Verb Phrase     ( feel the strain) which is the Predicate, and another Noun Phrase which is also a prepositional phrase   ( in surfeit of summits). In relation to the predicate, diplomatic sherpas and the strain represent the Argument of the verb. The clause is made up of Countable Nouns (sherpas; summits)which present the inflected form of the  plural s ; and a Clipped Word (summits) coming out of  “summit meetings”.

The headof the noun phrase is in the subject position, but sherpas is modified by the pre-modifier diplomatic. 

SYNTACTIC STRUCTURE SCHEME..( see attachement below)

grafico morfologico analysis of sherpas


The pre-modifier “diplomatic” before the head of the NP in the Subject position implies a metaphorical use of the word sherpas. Of course, the journalist uses these rhetorical devices to produce a certain effect on the reader , but he counts on what Grice calls the Co-operative Principle. This means that the communicative aim is reached only if the addressee shares the addresser’s general knowledge which allows him to recognize his intention.

In this case the addresser gives for granted the reader’s knowledge of sherpas as skilled mountaineers who resist to physical strain; otherwise it would be impossible to establish the semantic link between them and the diplomatic sherpas  exhausted by the surfeit of summits.


The body copy of the article we are analysing is made up of four paragraphs linked together by the key-word summits and sherpas which make up the texture of the article.

In fact, a TOP DOWN analysis will highlight how its COHESION  is given by the semantic relationship between the diplomatic sherpas who feel the strain in surfeit of summits in the headline, and the delegates participating to the G7 summit meetings mentioned in the first paragraph. The relationship is established by elements such as :

DEICTIC FORMS                              Anaphoric Proforms : HE referring to One British official

IT referring to W. E. Union anNATO

THEIR referring to sherpas/men

THESE LATTER referring to security specialists

Cataphoric Proforms : HE referring to Douglas Hurd





REPETITIONS                                 TOTAL                 : summits/Helsinki/Lisbon/


PARTIAL              : diplomacy/diplomatic;

weekend/week; day/days; agree/agreed

CONJUNCTIONS                       Despite/ But/ And

The top down approach is limited to the SURFACE STRUCTURE of the text; so, in order to fully understand the message conveyed by the article we will have to go into an in-depth analysis of the linguistic features. To this aim, a BOTTOM UP approach  will allow us to prove how COHERENCE is given by the deep structure unity of our text. In fact, the linguistic items contributing to give it coherence are the morpho-lexical aspects, syntax and semantics.


WORD CLASS                               : prevalence of NOUNS


SYNONIMS                                    :  summits/peaks

OPPOSITE WORDS                                 : today/yesterday


CLIPPED WORDS                         : summits for summit meetings


COMPOUNDS                              : weekend ( week= free radical morpheme; end = free radical


DERIVATIONAL WORDS                        : Surfeit = from French surfeit, rom sourfaire, from

SUR+faire=To overdo

:Verbiage = from French verbier = to chat

It means “ the excessive and often meaningless use

of  words”.

ADJECTIVES                              : invigorating/weary/gruelling

PARALLEL STRUCTURES       : the main burden falls/ but no burden falls

OBSOLETE WORDS                   : to toil up to

PHRASAL VERBS                       : to toil up to/to hack one’s way through

CONVERSIONS                          : Round ( usually used as an adjective, is used  here as a

noun meaning “sessions” (of meetings).

Meeting ( it can be a noun (as in our case) or

a present participle.

AFFIXATION                              : high-ly/heavi-ly =adding the suffix –ly to the noun we obtainthe

( derivational morphemes)               corresponding adverb

INFLECTIONS                            : finished/managed/extended = inflected morpheme –ED

to form the Past Simple Tense;

falls = inflected morpheme s to form the Present Simple

tense third person singular;


communiqués/ directors = inflected morpheme to form the



inflected morpheme to form the present participle;

gruelling = inflected morpheme to form an adjective

But a language lexis is not enough to construct a Discourse and create consensus ; words need to establish relationships between them and to be contained in a framework structure.

The relationship between the elements of our text is given by its SYNTACTIC STRUCTURE



1st paragraph : ClAUSE/SENTENCE TYPE : left-branching structure: the weight of grammatical structures is to the left of the predicate so the typical English language structure SVO has not been respected.

VERB TYPES : Active form ; Past tense (said); Present tense( have)

SUBORDINATE RELATIVE CLAUSE : ( …said one British official, arriving direct from the G7,…);

DIRECT SPEECH : “ This is my third summit in six days”.

2nd paragraph : CLAUSE/SENTENCE TYPE : 1st sentence : hypotactical left-branching structure in which the subject is preceded by several pre-modifiers;

2nd sentence : Subordinate Clause/Relative Clause ( …, which decided,…);

VERB TYPES : active form/past perfect tense/past simple tense/present simple tense/past continuous

VERB CONSTRUCTION : HAD BETTER+ Infinitive base form

3rd paragraph : CLAUSE/SENTENCE TYPE : Paratactical right branching structure

Peripheral dependents in APPOSITION : ( … the sherpas, the men who toil uo to the peaks of diplomacy,…);

RELATIVE CLAUSE : hacking their way…( elliptic form for “who hack their way”)

COORDINATE CLAUSES : (… hacking their way…and removing political boulders…)

VERB TYPES : active form prevalence of present tense; present participle; present perfect( have had).

4th paragraph : CLAUSE/SENTENCE TYPE : paratactical sentence structure : the head of th NP is preceded by an adversative conjunction(BUT) and an indefinite Adjective(NO).

Peripheral dependent in APPOSITION : ( … the political directors, the men who have to agree the communiqués line by line)

DIRECT SPEECH : “ I had a pretty good night yesterday”/ “ we were finished by 1 am”

VERB TYPES : present tense( falls); past simple(had; said); ACTIVE FORM/ PASSIVE FORM

( we were finished).

An analysis of the SEMANTIC LEVEL together with the many metaphoric words will highlight that we are in front of both THEMATIC COHERENCE and LOGIC COHERENCE.

In fact, in the text we are examining we can detect words belonging to the SEMANTIC AREAS of

  1. NATURE                          Peaks/Summits/boulders/jungle.
  2. DIPLOMACY                   delegates/diplomatic officials/political

Directors/communiqués/teams/speechifying/extended talks/summits/round/parliament/treasury men/G7 meeting/western European community/NATO/Foreign Office/European specialists/CSCE.

3.  WEARINESS                strain/weary/gruelling/burden/(to)hack one’s way/(to) toil up to

the words belonging to these three semantic areas continually intermingle in the text to form its conceptual texture and establish an analogy between the Hymalayan mountain guides and the diplomatic sherpas who have to cope with the tiring extended talks of the summer summitry meetings . The alliterative s  sound recalls the alliteration in the headline, thus conveying the idea of physical strain; words like gruelling, burden, boulders, to squeeze in, to toil up, to hack through further reinforce this idea making the two worlds of sherpas and diplomatic sherpas overlap.

Evidence of this can be found  in the first paragraph, where the lexical choice of the adjective weary in the body copy is aimed at establishing a direct link with the word strain in the lead. The journalist’s aim is to convey the idea of physical stress experienced both by sherpas and official diplomats when coping with difficult situations ( burden/jungles of verbiage). Moreover in the first paragraph the positive adjectives invigorating and bright provide a strong contrast with the delegate’s weary look . The 2nd paragraph helps us find a CAUSE/EFFECT relationship, which gives the text logical coherence since we are explained that the delegates are so tired because of  an excess of gruelling talks and lack of time.

But it is in the 3rd paragraph that we can find words supporting the metaphoric structure of the title. In fact, the obsolete verb form toil up to , and the metaphorical hacking their way through jungles of verbiage ( where the verb hacking recalls  the idea of an axe), convey the sense of difficulty in overcoming something dangerous.