Says versus said

We’ve already taken some time to talk about tense (especially as it relates to the lede), but I wanted to spend an additional minute on the special case of the verb “to say.”

In general, the preferred tense for verbs of expression (say, claim, note, etc.) in broadcast newswriting is the straight present.

20-year-old Tim Spriggs says, “We need a gay-straight alliance at St. John’s for the same reason that there are organizations for other minorities.”

This works most of the time, because most often we’re describing a recent statement that reflects the speaker’s current views (as above), or the current state of affairs.

But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes a quote or paraphrase is part of a narrative that you’ve already explicitly set in the past, using the past tense. In that case, it breaks the narrative thread for you to suddenly switch into the present tense for a quote or paraphrase.

In the actual OutQ News story from which the quote above was drawn, the two preceding sentences were this:

Some twenty students sat on the St. John’s University Great Lawn making rainbow gay rights posters. They told the New York Daily News they’ve been pushing for a campus GSA for years.

We’ve already set up an event from the preceding Friday, and any quotes or paraphrases emerge from within that narrative. Thus, we’re sort of stuck with putting everything (everything within the narrative, that is) in the past tense.

But further down in the same story, we escape the little narrative about the protest on the lawn to get a quote from a university spokesman. He spoke recently, and what he said reflects the school’s current view.

But a university spokesman says St. John’s has gone as far as it can to support gay students, considering its Catholic mission and values.

So in a nutshell: Use the present (says, notes, claims) unless they’re part of a story you’ve set in the past. In that case, stick with the tense of that story.

We’re done in by the passive voice

It’s nothing new for editors and journalism teachers to inveigh against the use of the passive voice in newswriting. In fact, that’s an understatement. Such exhortations are commonplace, trite, and boring; they’re the first chapter in every writing guide. And still, the passive voice is everywhere in news copy. I fix a dozen passive voice sentences a day in copy from our stringers, writers and wire services, and still some get by me. So here is my brief harangue on the subject.

First, a definition. The passive voice is a verb form in which the subject of the sentence is the thing being acted upon, instead of the thing doing the acting.

John’s ice cream is being eaten.

…instead of…

Sally is eating John’s ice cream.

As these examples demonstrate, there are two basic problems with the passive voice in newswriting (or really, in any kind of writing).

  1. The first is simply the stylistic fact that the passive voice makes for a less, well, active sentence. Passive voice sentences are just boring and flat, especially in constructions longer than the examples above. In large part, that’s because the action described is hard to visualize. Why? That brings us to the second point.
  2. The passive voice often disguises who is performing the action described. In the passive voice example above, we have no idea who is eating John’s ice cream. We can’t visualize the sentence except with a kind of blank space where “Sally” goes. (One could add that information: “John’s ice cream is being eaten by Sally.” But that’s just a longer and more awkward way of saying what would be brief and to-the-point in the active voice).

This is the journalistic problem with the passive voice. Deliberately or accidentally, it hides who is doing what to whom, and that’s bad journalism.

Sometimes (rarely) the passive voice is a necessary evil, when the ‘actor’ in the sentence is unknown or totally irrelevant.

Forty women and children were found dead in a remote Nigerian village this morning.

If this came to me from my wire service and I didn’t know who found them, I’d be kind of stuck with the lede. But oftentimes, the passive voice can be fixed with a resort to one of the all-purpose ‘actors.’ Thus,

Residents of the Shaw neighborhood are being urged to boil their water until further notice.

…can easily be made active voice.

City officials are urging Shaw residents to boil their water until further notice.

“Officials” are, by far, the most beloved generic ‘actors.’ “A spokesman,” “police,” and “the administration” (as appropriate) are also very popular. (Comment if you can think of any others. I’m momentarily stumped.)

As I implied earlier, beginning newswriters seem to crank out passive voice sentences left and right. But with practice (or enough negative feedback from your editor), it’s possible to develop very sensitive antennae that will ring an alarm every time you write or read something in the passive voice. And when that alarm rings, it’s time to ask “Why is that line in the passive voice? Is it because who did what to whom is being hidden?” (Catch the hidden passive voice sentence in the forgoing paragraph and win a prize.)

Link of the Week: Grammar, not gramma

With almost every entry on this blog I toss around grammar jargon like they’re working overtime at the factory. Most of it is stuff you probably thought you were done with when you graduated middle school. But, oh no, here it is again… and related to something you should know in order to make a living in newswriting. I bet you didn’t count on that when you flushed your mental cache around the time you graduated from college.

So for those who need a very condensed but readable guide to basic English grammar–technical terms and all–here’s what I use to double check my hazy recollections: Grammar Topics.

There are a thousand similar pages on the web. I happen to like this one (from the University of Victoria, British Columbia web site) because it’s very concise, correct (as far as I can tell), and from an academic (i.e. reasonably authoritative) source.

I’m a little tense about that lede

Because the lede to a broadcast story (or any news story, for that matter) must hook the audience immediately, it needs immediacy.

In print and sometimes in broadcast feature stories, it’s possible to, as we say, ‘delay the lede,’ putting a grabby bit of character or narrative right up front. In that case, the what’s-new, who-what-when-where-why-how part of the story (called the ‘nut graf’ — really!) comes later in the prose.

But on my side of the street, where we do only spot news, the ‘nut’ must always come first. That is, spot news always ledes with the most interesting, compelling way of expressing what’s new-new-new about this story.

One tool for conveying immediacy that says to the audience, “This is new! Pay attention!” is the choice of verb tense. In general, you want to lede with the tense that gives the strongest feeling of immediacy consistent with what makes logical sense given the facts.

So here is my rough-and-ready guide to lede tenses, in descending order of preference. As previously noted, these are rules of thumb; your mileage may vary.

  1. Present progressive tense: “Police are rounding up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
    This tense says the news event is happening right now; that’s as current as it gets. Notice that we rarely use the simple present tense (“Police round up twenty-five members…”); that would sound too much like a newspaper headline — telegraphic and just plain weird. Note also that the future tense is rarely used in a news lede (“Police will round up twenty-five members…”), because spot news is not much in the prognostication business. We leave that to tarot card readers and psychics.
  2. Present perfect tense: “Police have rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
    This is appropriate for something that happened in the recent past, and whose momentum, if you will, extends into the present. In the example, police just ’rounded up’ these alleged (always ‘alleged’) criminals, and still have them in custody.
  3. Simple past tense: “Police rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang last week.”
    Use this tense when the event you’re describing happened at some point in the somewhat more distant past, and is over and done with. This is not the tense you really want to use, as it conveys a feeling of stale, old news. If a week has gone by and most of those gang members have already bailed out of jail, it’s probably the safe choice. But in many cases, so long as the event is in the recent-ish past and the situation thereafter has been more-or-less static, you can use the present perfect tense in your lede, then specifically name the day the event happened (using the simple past tense) further down in your script.

I’ve seen newswriters use all kind of other weird tenses in their ledes (e.g. the past perfect: “Police had rounded up twenty five members…”; or past progressive: “Police were rounding up…”), but as a rule, you want to stick to these three unless you have a good reason and understand what you’re doing.

One final note: I called this specifically a guide to lede tenses for a reason. Tense choice within the main body of the story is likely to differ depending on the narrative needs of the story. Do not feel that because your lede is in a particular tense, the rest of the story must follow.

One more way to ‘decentuate’ the appositive

There’s one other way to avoid appositives that I forgot to mention.

You can make the noun and its description the subjects of two consecutive sentences, like so:

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says he’s now enjoying his retirement.
John Shalikashvili left the top spot at the Pentagon in 1997…

This works because English is highly asyndetic. That means the sentence structure carries much of the meaning, and so fluent speakers of the language understand how words, phrases and sentences relate to each other without the help of a lot of conjunctions and connective words. Thus it’s clear the subject of the second sentence, John Shalikashvili, is the same person as the subject of the first sentence, the Joint Chiefs chairman. (And incidentally, that previous sentence works just as well without the word ‘Thus,’ which is my point.)

Moreover, we’ll come back to ‘asyndetic’ when we talk about why you can completely do without ‘moreover.’

UPDATE: I am informed by a few authorities (i.e. broadcast writing books) I’ve consulted that this consecutive-sentences trick is a print construction and therefore bad. Listeners would assume the “Joint Chiefs chairman and Shalikashvili are two different people. Let’s just say I disagree, but concede there are some circumstances where the writer’s intention might be ambiguous (which is bad). You should be aware of that as you write, and use your judgment.

I’m negative about appositives

It’s often said about broadcast writing that it should sound conversational, but what usually goes unsaid are all the little technical things and thoughtful phrasing that go into giving written prose the feel of conversation. Those techniques will be a large part of my emphasis here.

One such important ‘rule’ (in quotes because, once well understood, rules can be treated as guidelines and cheerfully broken to achieve a desired effect) is avoiding appositives. An appositive is a word or phrase, set off by commas, that further describes the noun it follows. For example:

John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is now enjoying his retirement.

Appositives are incredibly common in print newswriting, but in my opinion, they should be incredibly rare in broadcast writing. The reason is, quite simply, that they are incredibly rare in conversational speech and a big red flag that what you’re hearing from your radio or TV was really intended to be read, not spoken.

So how to avoid them? The most common technique in broadcast writing is to turn an appositive into an adjective phrase:

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili is now enjoying his retirement.

With short phrases up to three or four words (‘Dayton fire chief George Smith says…’) this works very well, but in longer cases such as our example (seven words) it can be very awkward and, well, unconversational. So there are a couple of other options. One is to trim some syllables out of the phrase, if possible:

Joint Chiefs chair John Shalikashvili is now enjoying his retirement.

That works pretty well. But in cases where, for whatever reason, I can’t prune my description, I like to break it off into its own sentence.

John Shalikashvili is former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s now enjoying his retirement.

Even better (if time allows) would be a version that recasts the tense and adds a little information to eliminate the word ‘former.’

John Shalikashvili was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the mid-nineties. He’s now enjoying his retirement.

In both these cases, the phrasing seems pretty awkward when read in print. But try them aloud: you’ll see they sound much more natural than an appositive or even a long adjective phrase.

Note that this two-sentence technique is an exception to my ‘rule’ about blah to-be verbs, which I’ll expound on at a later date.