Studies of grammar in prose

Journalese overkill

9 June 2016

Journalese in English is a language all its own.

Common perceptions of journalese relate to the compressed style characteristic of headlines (omission of articles and the verb 'to be', simplification of tenses, substitution of shorter words), the "inverted pyramid" by which information is organised (stating "who, what, when, where and why" in the lead of the article), and the use of a range of artificial, often abbreviated structures.

Three less commonly cited principles of journalese are:

1. Always place attention-grabbing key content at the start and leave the finicky details till later. A rather mundane example is this leading sentence from an article in the Belfast Telegraph:

    A leading authority in mental health and suicide prevention has said the installation of CCTV cameras along Londonderry's Foyle Bridge will save lives.

While by no means a catchy lead, it is superior to the alternative: "Ulster University's Siobhan O'Neill, a professor of mental health, said the installation of CCTV cameras along Londonderry's Foyle Bridge will save lives". Rather than mentioning Professor O'Neill at the start, the article starts out dramatically by referring to "a leading authority in mental health and suicide prevention" before finally revealing the professor's name in the fourth paragraph.

2. In a similar vein, always place quoted text first, followed by the speaker's identity. The stated opinion is important to carrying the story forward; readers should be spared tedious details like the title or identity of the speaker until the important information has been placed out there. For example, this sentence from the Bloomberg story "BHP, Glencore Said to Bid for Anglo’s Australian Coal Mines":

    BHP Billiton Ltd. and Glencore Plc are among final bidders for Anglo American Plc’s Australian metallurgical coal assets that may fetch about $1.5 billion, people with knowledge of the matter said.

3. If there is a fear that readers lack background knowledge, always try to find ways of including details parenthetically.

For example, a Reuters article on commodity prices refers in one paragraph to "metallurgical coal". Just in case some readers don't know what metallurgical coal is, the next paragraph refers to "the steel-making fuel":

    Staying with the steel industry, the department also expects Australia's exports of metallurgical coal to rise to 203.9 million tonnes by the 2019-20 fiscal year, from 190 million in 2014-15.

    The price is estimated to rise from $115.80 a tonne this year to $128 by 2020, supported by rising demand for the steel-making fuel from India and a lack of new sources of cost-competitive supply outside of Australia.

This makes creative use of the stylistic device known as elegant variation, a feature of English prose which originally arose from a desire to avoid repeating the same word multiple times in the same passage. This device has a potential drawback: it wreaks havoc with the ordinary information structure of English sentences. The journalistic usage relies on the reader's realising that "the steel-making fuel" (note the definite article) refers to the same thing as "metallurgical coal". If the reader doesn't realise this, the sense of the sentence could easily go awry.

These kinds of journalistic mannerism can easily become a bad habit. In some cases journalists become so inured to them that they forget how to write properly. The following examples, again concerning commodities, come from two separate articles at Bloomberg that appeared on the same day. Journalistic features (including some devices not referred to above) are italicised; examples gone wrong are put in both bold and italics:

a) From the article "BHP Sells Out of Joint Coal Operation With Indonesia’s Adaro":

    PT Adaro Energy, operator of Indonesia’s largest coal mine, agreed to buy out BHP Billiton Ltd. from their joint venture in the country after production began last year.

    The Haju mine, on Borneo island, has annual capacity of 1 million metric tons of mainly coking coal, BHP said in a statement on Tuesday. The world’s biggest mining company held a 75 percent stake in the IndoMet Coal venture, and an Adaro unit the rest, the Melbourne-based producer said. Adaro agreed to pay $120 million for the stake, the buyer said in a separate statement.
    “BHP Billiton has a range of other growth options in the portfolio that are more attractive for future investment,” James Palmer, IndoMet Coal asset president for the Australian company, said in the statement.

The examples include a) the placing of the source after the quote, and b) addition of background detail (operator of Indonesia’s largest coal mine, on Borneo island, after production began last year, IndoMet Coal asset president).

Where the article goes overboard is in the characterisation of BHP Billiton at two places in the same sentence (The world’s biggest mining company and the Melbourne-based producer), in addition to a third reference to BHP Billiton as the Australian company. The first example is so confusing that a reader who didn't know that BHP Billiton was the world's biggest mining company might even assume that a separate company is being referred to. Such is the distortion of the ordinary information structure.

b) From the article "Citigroup Raises Iron Ore Outlook as Demand 'May Surprise'":

    China’s efforts to prop up its economy and escalating mining costs may delay iron ore’s inevitable decline back below $40, according to Citigroup Inc., which raised its price forecasts by as much as 21 percent.

    The bank predicts that the raw material used to make steel will trade at $48 a metric ton in the third quarter and $46 in the final three months, compared with previous estimates of $46 and $38, Citigroup said in a report Tuesday.

Journalistic devices include a) placing the source of quotes after the quote itself (according to Citigroup Inc., Citigroup said in a report Tuesday) and b) educating readers with background information on iron ore (the raw material used to make steel).

Due to poor editing, the second paragraph attributes the same quote twice (The bank predicts and Citigroup said in a report).

This doesn't exhaust the standard syntactic devices used in journalistic prose, and there are many more examples of clumsy or misleading usage to be found out there.