The English Of The Newspapers
( Originally Published 1911 )
Of the three generally recognized qualities of good style — clarity, force and grace—it is the last and the last alone in which critics of newspaper English find their material. It would be ludicrously superfluous to illustrate here the prevailing clearness of what one reads in the daily press. To it everything else is sacrificed. He who runs through the pages of his paper at a speed that keeps even pace with that of his car or train, and yet understands what he reads, without difficulty and without delay, would give short hearing to a complaint on this score. The same assertion may safely be made of the second of the trio of good qualities. Whenever and wherever force is needed, the reporter, no matter what his limitations of time and distracting circumstances, manages to put it into his writing.
The result is plain—and inevitable. Beauty, grace, suggestion of that final touch which confers upon its object the immortality of perfect art, are nearly always conspicuously absent. We know at a glance what has happened and we get the force of whatever significance the writer has wished to impress, but it is all hurled at our heads in the same whole-sale fashion, with the same neglect of "form," that the genuine American is accustomed to in his quick-lunch resort, and, in his heart, really likes. . . . Without intending to be dogmatic about it, we are inclined to say that, if a news-paper's English makes a fair approach to the level of an educated, intelligent man's serious conversation, it will be doing about all that can justly be expected. Whatever it accomplishes more than this is to its credit.— From an editorial in the New York Evening Post.
" Newspaper English " has often been used as a term of reproach, as if the newspapers, by concerted action, had been guilty of creating an inferior, trademarked brand of English for their own purposes. The term has been hurled indiscriminately at all newspapers, the good as well as the bad, and young writers have been warned in a vague, general way to beware of the reporter's style. As applied to loosely edited newspapers the criticism is just. It is not true, however, that " newspaper English " constitutes a special variety of language, to be shunned by all who would attain purity in writing. There are good books and bad books, just as there are good newspapers and bad newspapers, and it would be as reasonable to condemn all books because they are written in a "bookish " style as it is to include all news writing in a sweeping condemnation.
No defense is needed of the style of writing in the well-edited modern newspaper. Free from pedantry and obsolete expressions, the English of the best newspapers fulfills its purpose of telling the news of the day in language that all can under-stand. Newspaper English has not been created by the newspapers alone. It is the language of the people, clarified and simplified in the writing, as opposed to the language of an earlier day which obscured the writer's thought in a maze of high-sounding words. Newspaper English, at its best, is nothing more nor less than good English employed in the setting forth of news. At its worst it embodies the common faults of writing.
The reporter writes his story for readers of all degrees of intelligence — for the man whose only reading is newspapers and for the man of cultivated taste. Simplicity is the keynote. This does not mean crudity or slovenliness, for while the good news story is written with the limitations of the least intelligent reader in mind, it should not offend the educated reader. In this respect the Bible, the simplest of all books, is an excellent model for the news writer.
In keeping with its essential simplicity of style, the good news story is clear, concise and forceful.
Simplicity of structure and diction implies clearness. The story that would appeal to the masses defeats its purpose if not readily intelligible. The average newspaper reader has neither time nor inclination to puzzle over an involved' sentence or to consult a glossary for the definition of a technical phrase.
Scientific terms, if not in general use, should be translated into everyday English. This is true also of legal phraseology and other words and expressions of purely technical meaning. Let your story explain itself. If Mrs. Jones got a divorce, say so; don't confuse the reader with the verbiage of the courts. Get as close to the speech of the people as good taste and correctness will allow. Vulgar and silly slang is not tolerated by the good news-paper, but an expressive colloquialism may be used to avoid pedantry.
In striving for simplicity and clarity beware of dullness. " Fine writing "— the kind that speaks of a barber shop as a " tonsorial parlor "— has no place in the modern newspaper office, but there is a demand for the writer who can infuse freshness and vigor into his story. The style of your story should be simple, its meaning clear and its diction pure. Try also to give it that element of originality and charm that distinguishes the best writing from merely good writing. Newspaper English, as used by skillful writers, displays often, in its well-turned phrases, its quick description and its " featuring " of the leading facts, the touch of the true artist. For all this the story is none the less, in the manner of its telling, simple and clear.
" Boil it down " is an injunction frequently heard in the newspaper office. The requirements both of the public and of the newspaper demand that the story be concisely told. The hurried reader has no time for the story clogged with unnecessary words and trivial detail; the newspaper has no space for it.
Daily there comes to the newspaper a stream of copy from various sources. The local room con-tributes its share, while the telegraph editor receives scores of dispatches from special correspondents, besides the regular service of one of the great news gathering organizations. It would be neither possible nor desirable to print all of the immense amount of news matter received. The paper as the reader sees it is the result of a process of careful selection. Many stories have been omitted, some of them having been " killed " after progressing as far as the type forms, and others have been " boiled down " to a few sentences.
The news writer, then, should study to be terse. Verbosity merely makes work for the copy reader's pencil. Try to say in one word what the writer who strains after effect might put into half a dozen. Don't say " devouring element " when you mean " fire." " Fire " is a good Anglo-Saxon word that everybody understands and uses — and it is twelve letters shorter. " A house is building " is simpler, shorter and more effective than "A house is in process of construction." " The society met last night and elected officers for the year " is the simple, natural equivalent of " At a meeting held last night the society perfected its organization for the year by the election of officers."
Wordiness, like bad spelling, is a sign of mental laziness, and the newspaper office has no room for the lazy.
Force grows out of simplicity, clearness, terseness of style. The story told in plain, curt phrase is more effective than the story which shows a conscious striving after effect. Diction is important. A strong word lends strength to an entire sentence, while a weak word may spoil the vividness of an impression. As a rule the words that are deeply rooted in everyday speech are stronger than their synonyms of foreign origin. Words derived from the Anglo-Saxon are the bone and sinew of the language. The writer who neglects them for the longer and often more euphonious words from the Latin may add elegance to his style, but he takes away from its power to impress. The reader feels the difference, though he may not be able to explain it.
Brevity as well as force favors the Anglo-Saxon. " Begin " is shorter than " commence." It is a bet-ter word for the news writer. Likewise it is bet-ter to say " A movement was begun " than "A movement was inaugurated." The latter is a word in good standing—presidents are inaugurated—but let it be confined to its proper use. " Build " is preferable to " construct " when the words may be used interchangeably. Examples might be multiplied, but in the end the writer must rely on his own judgment of word-values, sharpened by a study of good writing.
This rule may be formulated : In seeking force, choose the Anglo-Saxon word instead of its foreign equivalent unless clearness demands the latter.
The active voice is usually more forcible than the passive. " Jones succeeds Smith" and " A house is building " are better news sentences for this reason than Smith is succeeded by Jones " and " A house is being built."
Short sentences, unless they become monotonous, are preferable to long. The speed with which stories are put together in the newspaper office, especially when the writer is working to " catch an edition," is one factor that makes news writing forcible. Working under pressure, the reporter writes with a nervous, hurried energy that makes for short sentences and quick, telling phrases. He has no time for involved construction and prettiness of language. His aim is to " feature " the big facts of the story — to put what he calls a " punch " into the lead. What such a story lacks in elegance it makes up in force.
SUGGESTIONS FOR HOME OR CLASS-ROOM STUDY
I.— A good news story, illustrating especially the virtue of conciseness :
CHICAGO, Nov. 5.-" It is hard to give away money," declared James A. Patten, retired Board of Trade operator, at a Y. M. C. A. meeting last night at Evanston. " A person must acquire the habit," he added. " After that it comes easy."
Then he gave the Evanston association $25,000, with the condition that it raise an additional $75,000 within the next ten days. The meeting opened a campaign for raising a fund of $100,000.
(Note in the foregoing the effective use of direct quotation.)
II.— Simplicity of form and diction adds to the force of the following news dispatch :
LONDON, Nov. 5.- Dr. Hawley H. Crippen, convicted of the murder of his wife, Belle Elmore, the actress, today played his last card and lost. He will be hanged on November 8.
Changed as he was physically, Crippen maintained his composure even in the trying moment when he heard his doom pronounced. At once the Court's decision was announced, a warden touched the prisoner on the shoulder and the latter, without a word or gesture, turned and left the dock. He was conducted at once to Pentonville Prison.
Those who have seen Crippen during his imprisonment say that his bearing has never changed from the moment of his arrest. He sleeps throughout the night soundly and eats heartily. He spends much time in reading. Miss Leneve has visited him in the prison three times.
(All the salient facts of the story are summed up in the opening paragraph. Note the use of metaphor —" played his last card and lost." Touches such as this lift a story above the commonplace. Note, too, that no attempt is made at so-called " fine writing.")
III.— Rewrite the following :
Within three hours after a " ten spot" had been deposited with Chief of Police William Smith as a reward to the patrolman arresting one Fred Wilson, charged with the larceny of a coat and a pair of shoes from J. W. Morris at a South street rooming house, said Fred Wilson was resting his tired body within the confines of the city bastile.
Morris left the reward and a description of the man who, he said, had taken the articles. Each policeman was given the description and told to look out for the man. It fell to Officer John Haden at the Frisco Depot to garner the loose change by collaring Wilson and taking him to headquarters. He had the shoes and coat in his possession at the time and told Haden that he had merely put them on to wear for a little while.
It is believed that he was preparing to leave Smithton for another haven when arrested.
(The foregoing is a sample of "fine writing." Why not say $10 or " a ten-dollar bill " instead of "ten spot"? " Charged with stealing" is shorter and more to the point than the technical expression, "charged with the larceny of." " Within the con-fines of the city bastile" evidently means "in the city jail." Other violations of good news style will be apparent after a moment's thought. When in doubt ask yourself : How would I say this if I were relating the incident in conversation? Then write it that way. Be natural.)