"Please open window" is a sign I saw on a London bus. What rule let the author omit an article? It was written right on the window, so I'm wondering why they didn't write "Please open the window".

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    This is a signage convention to save space, here in the U.S. I would always say "Please open the window" if possible. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 13:51
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    @JosephDoggie Since the US is a much bigger country we have more room for articles. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 16:35
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    You mean "without article"? ;-) Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 22:29
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    " It was written right on the window, so I'm wondering why they didn't write 'Please open the window'". That reminds me of the old joke about a kibbitzer. If brevity was the sole consideration "open" would do. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 1:10
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    @JosephDoggie ditto in UK.
    – nigel222
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 17:26

3 Answers 3


Signs and notices of this kind are often written in "headlinese," an abbreviated style that omits articles, forms of to be, and other unnecessary words. Similar examples include signs like "keep off grass" and "road ends."

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    You called it "headlinese" which means that it's also used in headers in newspapers and in titles of articles online, doesn't it? By omitting forms of "to be" do you mean that, for example, instead of "The water is boling" or "The food is ready" it would write "Water boiling", "Food ready"?
    – musialmi
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 5:59
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    Yes, "water boiling" although it would be more normal write "boiling water" (as headlinese for "this is boiling water"). It is quite hard to get headlinese right, and many attempts by non-native speakers end up sounding like double-dutch.
    – James K
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 6:24
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    @JamesK But musialmi has intuited correctly the general rule, which is that the word order does not change; it's just that bits are missed out. So in a text to your impatient wife or husband who is waiting upstairs for their tea, one might text "water boiling, almost there!", because it's short for "the water is boiling", but as you say, in your example "boiling water" is better because it stands for "this is boiling water". Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 9:51
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Of course, headlinese can sometimes be ambiguous. In a text message, "boiing water" would likely be short for "I'm boiling water".
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 15:23
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    It's worth noting that we almost never speak this way; we only use this style on signs, headlines and other places where space is limited or when we don't feel like writing things all the way out
    – T Hummus
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 17:05

An older term for this kind of writing is “telegraphic style.” Telegrams charged by the letter, so people would send messages as short as possible to save money. Businesses, such as banks and brokerages, would have codebooks full of abbreviations to save money on telegrams. Often, these were important instructions. SEND MONEY would have been a typical example.

This especially became famous as a style of communications between military units, where the concern wasn’t cost, but messages were often sent in code, or by a very inconvenient mechanism like signal flag or beacons. In WWII in particular, codebreakers often worked by looking for a common word that appeared in most messages, like EINS in German, so avoiding words like THE could make a code harder to break.

I personally wouldn’t call that example “headlinese,” because headlines normally aren’t commands like that. But newspaper headlines were similarly terse and clipped. This was so a print newspaper could make the letters in the headline as big and catchy as possible.

  • And then they went and signed off their weather reports... Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 13:13

This kind of sign has meaning when attached to a specific window. It does not need the article because it relates to the window it is attached to. The same for "Keep off Grass" only works on a sign "in the grass".

It is not something we would say or write in other situations.

As a native speaker that is how I interpret that aspect of the grammar; other grammarians can give their views.

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    No, no, no, no. "Keep off grass" works perfectly well on a t-shirt too, or on a poster at a police station. ;) Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 22:09
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    I disagree that "It does not need the article because it relates to the window it is attached to." For example, a "Beware of dog" sign doesn't need an article, even though it's not attached to a dog. "For sale by owner" refers to an owner that may not be anywhere nearby.
    – LarsH
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 23:39
  • Granted, these signs typically do refer to a specific noun; otherwise, there wouldn't be a "the" article to omit in the first place. I'm trying to think of a sign that would be interpreted as missing an "a/an" article, and I can't think of any right now.
    – LarsH
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 23:41
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    @user71659 Agreed. Signs make sense because they talk about something whose relevance is clear from context. But this is not why the article can be dropped. When someone says orally "That property is for sale by the owner," the reason that they include the definite article is not because the context is lacking or the referent is unclear, but because we don't usually speak in "headlinese" / telegraphic style.
    – LarsH
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 13:42
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    @LarsH: I'd say that "Caution – Risk of explosion" implies There is the risk of *AN* explosion, not There is the risk of *THE* explosion. I'm not fully sure about "risk", though: both implications – either *THE* risk or *A* risk – seem to be possible. And there's "Face shield must be worn", which also implies the indefinite article.
    – Schmuddi
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 14:40

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