Teachers having classes sufficiently advanced may find
it advisable to pass hastily over this chapter, or may
omit it entirely.
The same laws of accuracy and interest hold for the
sentence as for the story as a whole. But in the sentence they are more
rigid,--due in the main to the fact that the sentence is briefer and
more readily analyzable. And while one sympathizes with the overworked
reporter who served notice upon critical college professors that "when
the hands of the clock are near on to press time, and I have a million
things to write in a few minutes, I don't give a whoop if I do end a few
sentences with prepositions," and concluded by saying, "If I had as much
time as the average college professor has, I probably could write good
grammar, too";--while one sympathizes with the time-driven newspaper man
who never has sufficient leisure to polish a story as he would like, the
fact still remains that the reader cannot tell from looking at a story,
nor should he be allowed to tell, how much rushed the reporter was. The
only thing the reader is interested in is the story, whether it is good
or not; and if he does not regard it as worth while, if the sentences
are faulty, ungrammatical, weak, he will read another story or another
The first point to regard in seeking accuracy in the
sentence is good grammar. This may seem a trivial injunction to offer a
coming star reporter on a great metropolitan daily; but the city
editor's assistants have to correct more grammatical errors in cub copy
than any other kind of mistake except spelling and punctuation. The main
violations of grammar may be classified conveniently under four heads:
faulty reference, incorrect verb forms, failures in cooerdinating and
subordinating different parts of a sentence, and poor ellipsis.
=147. Pronouns Referring to Ideas
Probably the most prolific cause of
bad grammar and of obscurity of meaning in news writing may be found in
the use of unclear pronouns. One or more instances may be found in
almost every paper a reader examines. A reporter should assure himself
that every pronoun he uses refers to a particular word in the sentence
and that it agrees with that word in gender and number. The use of a
pronoun to refer to a general idea not expressed in a particular word is
one of the commonest causes of ambiguity and obscurity in newspaper
work. In the following sentence note what a ludicrous turn is given the
sentence by the use of which referring to an idea:
A card from C. A. Laird, son of Harry Laird, informs
the Democrat that his father is slightly improved
and that they now have hopes of his recovery,
although he suffers much pain from his fractured
jaw, which will be good news to his many Lock Haven
=148. Agreement of Pronouns in Number
A second prime cause of
incorrect reference is found in a writer's failure to make a reference
word agree in number with the noun to which it refers. Such faulty
reference occurs most frequently after collective nouns, such as mob,
crowd, council, jury, assembly; after distributive pronouns,
such as everyone, anybody, nobody; and after two or more singular
and plural nouns, where the reporter forgets momentarily to which he is
referring. In the following sentences note that each of the italicized
pronouns violates one or more of these principles, thereby polluting the
clearness of the meaning:
The mob was already surrounding the attorney's home,
but they moved so slowly that we got in ahead.
We have heard more than one express themselves
that next year Merrillan should have the biggest
celebration of the century.
Everyone who had any interest in the boat was
inquiring about their friends and relatives.
A peculiar thing about each one was that they
chose a husband with a given name that rhymed much
the same with their own. Mrs. Baker was Josephine
Ramp and secured Joe as her husband; Arnie Hallauer
and Annie Ramp, Gust Lumblad and Gusta Ramp, and
Eugene Carver and Ella Ramp. The latter is a
widow. The given name of each one commences with the
same letter in each instance.
=149. Ambiguous Antecedents
Then there is a use of the pronoun with
an unclear antecedent buried somewhere in the sentence, so that the
pronoun seems to refer to an intervening word. Such a misuse really is a
matter of clearness rather than of grammar, and should come under the
next section of this chapter, but it will be discussed here for the sake
of including all misuses of the pronoun at once. The ambiguous use of
pronouns is the most common error of faulty reference. The following are
The Rev. Mr. Tomlinson states that he wants a
steady, religious young man to look after his garden
and care for his cow who has a good voice and is
accustomed to singing in the choir.
Atkinson telephoned that he was at Zeibski's corners
in his machine and had his wife with him. She had
died on him and he wanted the garage company to come
out and pull her in.
=150. Split Infinitive
Next to faulty reference in frequency comes
the use of incorrect verb forms. Of these probably the most common error
among cub reporters is the employment of the split infinitive,--to
quickly run instead of to run quickly. The split infinitive is not
necessarily an error. There are times when one's precise meaning can be
expressed only by the use of an adverb between to and its infinitive.
But as a rule one should avoid the construction. Certainly there was no
excuse for the following in a Chicago paper:
President Yuan Shi Kai declared he was willing to
permit Professor Frank Johnson Goodnow of Brooklyn,
legal adviser to the Chinese government, to in
August accept the presidency of Johns Hopkins
=151. Infinitive and Participle with Verbs
The use of the infinitive
and the participle with the past tense of verbs is also a cause of
frequent error. Our English rule regarding these parts of the verb is
mainly a matter of usage, accuracy in which may be attained only by
habits of correct speech. But if the reporter will bear in mind that the
infinitive and the participle have no finite tense of their own, that
they always express time relative to the time of the main verb, he will
have taken a real precaution toward preventing confusion. For example,
the newspaper man who wrote,
Detective McGuire had intended to have arrested him
when he began blowing the safe,
did not say what he meant, because the past infinitive here makes the
writer say that Detective McGuire had intended to have the yeggman
already under arrest when he began blowing the safe. What the writer
meant to say was:
Detective McGuire had intended to arrest him when he
began blowing the safe.
Likewise the reporter was inaccurate who wrote:
Going into the basement, they found the cocaine
stored beneath a heap of rags.
He was not accurate, unless he meant that they found the cocaine while
on the way to the basement. The cause of his inaccuracy lies in the fact
that the time expressed by the participle going varies from that of
the main verb. What he should have said was,
Having gone into the basement, ...
After going into the basement, they found the
cocaine stored beneath a heap of rags.
=152. Dangling Participles
Another detail for careful attention in
the use of the participle is the necessity of having a definite noun or
pronoun in the sentence for the participle to modify. It is wrong to
Having arrived at the county jail, the door was
because the sentence seems to say that the door did the arriving. The
sentence should be written,
Having arrived at the county jail, the mob forced
open the door.
=153. Agreement of Verbs
One should watch one's verbs carefully, too,
to see that they agree in number with their subjects. One is sometimes
tempted to make the verb agree with the predicate, as in the following:
The weakest section of the course are the ninth,
tenth, and eleventh holes.
But English usage requires agreement of the verb with the subject. If
the subject is a collective noun, one may regard it as either singular
or plural. But when the writer has made his choice, he must maintain a
consistent point of view. One may say,
The mob were now gathering in the northeast corner
of the yard and yelling themselves hoarse,
The mob was now gathering in the northeast corner of
the yard and yelling itself hoarse.
But the two points of view may not be mixed in the same sentence or the
same paragraph. That the following sentence is wrong should be evident
at a glance:
The Kellog-Haines Singing Party has been on the
lyceum and chautauqua platform for eight years and
have toured together the entire United States.
Confusion is often caused also by qualifying phrases intervening between
subjects and their verbs. Thus:
The number of the strikers and of the members of the
employment associations do not agree with the report
made by the commission.
And sometimes one finds a plural verb wrongly used after the correlative
terms either ... or and neither ... nor, as in the following:
Neither the mother of the children nor the aunt were
held responsible for the accident.
Finally, one often finds reporters consistently using a singular verb
after the expletive there. In fifty per cent of the cases the writers
are wrong. Thus:
The briefest glance at the yard and premises would
have shown that there was more than one in the
Here was should be were.
=154. Cooerdination and Subordination
The third error in grammatical
construction, failure to cooerdinate or subordinate sentences and parts
of sentences properly, cannot be treated with so much sureness as the
two preceding faults; yet certain definite instruction may be given.
And, but, for, or, and nor are called cooerdinating
conjunctions; that is, they are used to connect words, phrases, and
clauses of equal rank. If one uses and to connect a noun with a verb,
or a past participle with a present participle, or a verb in the
indicative mood with one in the subjunctive, he perverts the conjunction
and produces a consequent effect of awkwardness or lack of clearness in
the sentence. Look at the following:
The sister residing in Albany, and who is said to
have struck one of the visiting sisters, followed
them into the sick room.
In this sentence and is used to connect the participle residing with
the pronoun who, and the consequent awkwardness results. This is the
much condemned and who construction. Likewise, in the next sentence:
Five hundred persons saw two boys washed from the
end of Winter's pier and drowning in twenty feet of
water at noon to-day.
And is here used to connect the past participle washed with the
present participle drowning, and the sentence is thereby rendered
=155. Clauses Unequal in Thought
An equally great inaccuracy is the
attempt to connect with a cooerdinate conjunction clauses equivalent in
grammatical construction, but unequal in thought value. Other things
being equal, the ideas of greatest value should be put into independent
clauses, the ideas of least value into dependent clauses or phrases.
Other things being equal, be it understood, for by a too strict
observance of this rule one may easily make the sentence ludicrous. Take
the following as an illustration:
We were to raid the hall precisely at midnight, and
we set our watches to the second.
Here the thought-value of the two clauses is not equal, no matter how
the writer may attempt to make it seem so by expressing the ideas in
clauses grammatically equal. The second clause contains the main idea;
so the first should be subservient. Thus:
As we were to raid the hall precisely at midnight,
we set our watches to the second.
In the corrected form the sentence is given greater force by having the
reader's attention directed specifically to the thought of prime
importance, the setting of the watches. And so with the following
sentences. Note that the second in each case is made more forceful by
centering the attention on what is most important in thought.
The saloons were not allowed after January 1 to keep
open on Sunday, and half of them gave up their
As the saloons were not allowed after January 1 to
keep open on Sunday, half of them gave up their
* * * * *
He fell from the sixth story and was able to walk
away without assistance.
Though he fell from the sixth story, he was able to
walk away without assistance.
Ellipsis is the omission of a word or phrase necessary
to the meaning of a sentence. An ellipsis is poor when the words omitted
cannot readily be understood from the context. Pope's line,
To err is human; to forgive, divine.
is an illustration of good ellipsis because the word is can readily be
substituted from the context. The following ellipses, however, are not
Louis Flanagan is helping his brother Silas cut wood
and numerous other things.
He shadowed Laux longer than O'Rourke.
Standing on each side of the door, a fat and tall
man looked suspiciously at them.
Ellipsis is often desirable for the sake of brevity, but one must be
sure never to omit a word or phrase unless precisely that word or phrase
may be readily supplied from the context.
=157. Clearness in the Sentence
After correct grammar, the next
points to seek in writing the sentence are clearness and force, which
together give a sentence its interest. Of the two, clearness is the more
important. A reporter should never write a sentence that must be read
twice to be understood. As has been said once or twice already, but may
be repeated for emphasis, news stories to-day are read rapidly, and
rapid reading is possible only when sentences yield their ideas with
small effort on the part of the reader. Consider the following:
The Assembly on Thursday refused to pass the Grell
Bill, permitting the sale of intoxicating liquors,
after the close of the polls on election days, over
the governor's veto.
This sentence is clear if one will stop to read it twice; but there is
the trouble: one must read it twice--a task few will perform.
=158. Grammatically Connected Phrases
The lack of entire clearness in
the sentence just quoted is due to a difficulty over which the best
writers often stumble,--failure to keep grammatically connected words,
phrases, and clauses as close together as possible. In the sentence
quoted, for instance, if the phrase over the governor's veto were
placed immediately after pass, the whole sentence would be clear at
once to the reader. The same fault exists in the following:
The witness said she had a furnished bedroom for a
gentleman 22 feet long by 11 feet wide.
=159. Correlative Conjunctions
The correlative conjunctions, either
... or, neither ... nor, whether ... or, and not only ... but
also, are also particularly liable to trip a writer. Each should come
immediately before the word or phrase it modifies. For example:
Either the prisoner will be hanged or sentenced to
This sentence obviously is wrong. Either here should come immediately
before hanged, making the sentence read:
The prisoner will be either hanged or sentenced to
=160. "Only" and "Alone."=--Only and alone belong in the same class
of modifiers that demand close watching. Only comes immediately before
the word or phrase it modifies, alone immediately after. One should
avoid using only when alone may be used instead, and should not
place either of the two words between emphatic words or phrases. The
following illustrates an inaccurate placing of only:
The evidence seemed to show that a man could only
obtain advancement in the Hall by submitting wholly
to the dictates of the leaders.
Only here should come immediately before the phrase by submitting.
=161. Parenthetic Expressions
The use of long parenthetic expressions
within a sentence is also a frequent cause of lack of clearness. In
general, sentences within parentheses should be avoided in news
articles. Two short terse sentences are clearer--hence far more
effective--than one long one containing a doubtfully clear parenthetic
phrase or clause. The prime fault with the following sentence, for
instance, is the inclusion of the two parenthetic clauses, necessitating
a close reading to get the meaning:
Even if the allies shall be able to force the
Dardanelles, and present indications are that they
will, the wheat crop in Russia will not be up to the
average from that country on account of the
withdrawal of so many millions of men for purely
military purposes, either in the fields of battle or
in the factories getting munitions of war ready.
Put into two sentences, the illustration becomes:
Even if the allies shall be able to fulfil their
present expectations of forcing the Dardanelles, the
Russian wheat will not be up to the average. Too
many millions of men have been withdrawn from the
field to the trenches and the munition factories to
enable the country to produce a full crop.
=162. Shifted Subject
A shifted subject within a sentence is also
usually a hindrance to clearness. Indeed, one can aid clearness in
successive sentences by retaining as far as possible the same subject.
Certainly one should not shift subjects within the sentence without good
reason. The two following sentences exhibit the weakness of the shifted
The British ambassador to Norway has offered $25,000
reward for his capture, and he bears a special
passport from the Kaiser.
Witter was standing near the curb, but the death-car
passed without his seeing it.
Improved, these sentences become:
The British ambassador to Norway has offered $25,000
reward for the capture of Benson, who bears a
special passport from the Kaiser.
Witter was standing near the curb, but failed to see
the death-car pass.
Clearness frequently is destroyed or greatly lessened
through lack of proper coherence. Writers often forget that every
sentence has a double purpose: to convey a meaning itself and to make
clearer the meaning of preceding and succeeding sentences. The reporter
should watch closely to see not only that the phrases of his sentences
follow each other in natural sequence, but also that the relation of
those phrases to adjacent ones in the same or other sentences is clearly
shown. Here is a notice made ludicrous because the reporter used a
connective indicating a wrong relation between two clauses:
Mrs. Alpheus White is on the sick list this week.
Dr. Anderson has been with her, but we hope she may
The connective that the writer should have used, of course, was and,
or else none at all. Substitute the and or merely omit the but and
the coherence is perfect.
=164. Coherence and Unity
Many sentences that appear to lack unity
are really wanting in proper coherence. For instance,
Dr. Alvers was called as soon as the accident was
discovered, and it is feared now she will not
is a sentence lacking in unity, but one that may be unified properly if
the coherence is made good. Thus:
Dr. Alvers was called as soon as the accident was
discovered, and though he gave all the aid that
medical science could render, it is feared now she
will not recover.
=165. Sentence Emphasis
Sentence emphasis is gained in five ways: by
form, position, proportion, repetition, and delicacy of expression.
Sentence form--putting into an independent clause what is most
important--has already been discussed under clearness. The use of
position for emphasis is the placing at the beginning or end of the
sentence the ideas that are most important and the enclosure within of
the less important thoughts. The following sentence illustrates a
writer's failure to avail himself of position for emphasis:
This afternoon reports that she was still missing
from home were being circulated.
But this afternoon and circulated are not the important concepts.
Reports and still missing from home are the emphatic ideas and
should be put first and last respectively. Thus:
Reports were being circulated this afternoon that
she was still missing from home.
So with the following:
This morning fifty convicts of the Kansas State
penitentiary were placed in solitary confinement,
accused of being leaders in a mutiny yesterday in
the coal mines operated by the penitentiary.
This morning and mines operated by the penitentiary are not,
however, the important ideas. A better arrangement of the sentence
Accused of being leaders in a mutiny yesterday in
the penitentiary coal mines, fifty convicts of the
Kansas State penitentiary were placed this morning
in solitary confinement.
Similarly, a phrase or clause transferred from its normal position in
the sentence will attract attention to itself. Note the increased
emphasis upon the matter was purely political in the following
sentence by transference of it from its normal position at the end:
Simpson, who was in the uniform of a lieutenant when
arrested at New Orleans, said the matter was purely
That the matter was purely political was the
statement made by Simpson, who was in the uniform of
a lieutenant when arrested at New Orleans.
=166. Proportion for Emphasis
The emphasis of a sentence in a news
story varies in inverse proportion to its length. Emphasis is gained by
brevity. A prolix style tires the reader; and newspaper space is
valuable. The reporter, therefore, must make his sentences short and
pointed. He must condense, must reduce predication to a minimum. As few
verbs as possible and all verbs active is a slogan in the news room. It
is an error from a newspaper standpoint to include in a sentence any
word that may be omitted without altering or obscuring the sense. One
of the first requisites for success in journalism is ability to present
facts with a minimum of words. Note the added emphasis given the
following sentences by mere reduction in the number of words:
It is well to understand that a high temperature of
heat, boiling or more, destroys the germs of
It is well understood that a high temperature,
boiling or more, destroys germs.
* * * * *
A pioneer living west of Solon blew his head off
to-day with a shotgun. Death followed the deed
A pioneer living west of Solon killed himself
instantly to-day by blowing his head off with a
* * * * *
Miss Helen Goodrich, who is an aviatrix of note, was
arrested in Bremen this morning charged with
Miss Helen Goodrich, an aviatrix of note, was
arrested in Bremen this morning charged with
Note that in the last illustration, in particular, the condensation
consists in reducing predication, in merely removing a verb and a
pronoun from the sentence.
The worth of repetition as a means of obtaining
coherence has been discussed in a preceding chapter. Its value as an
effective means of gaining emphasis is also noteworthy. Consider the
effect of the repetition of the word blithe in the following two
A blithe young man met a blithe young woman at State
and Adams Streets Friday. Michael Hurley, a blithe
plain-clothes policeman, met them both.
Great care must be exercised, however, in repeating a word for emphasis.
The usage may easily be a handicap rather than a help. More often than
not, repetition of the same word or phrase is the result of laziness or
paucity of vocabulary, and destroys the force of the sentence. An
instance of too frequent use of the same word--the adjective
beautiful--appears in the following:
The bride was elaborately gowned in a beautiful
sky-blue messaline dress, with silk over lace, and
carried a beautiful bouquet of gladiolis, besides
having a beautiful bouquet of flowers at the waist.
The groom wore the usual blue worsted suit, with a
beautiful buttonhole bouquet, while the bridesmaid
was beautifully gowned in a white French serge
trimmed with a light blue silk girdle and a blue
silk tango cord at the throat, and also had a
beautiful bouquet at the waist. The best man wore a
rich dark gray suit and also had a beautiful
buttonhole bouquet. The room was beautifully
decorated with green foliage and roses, formed into
a beautiful arch, under which the couple stood
during the ceremony, which was performed by Rev.
Wells of this city.
=168. Delicacy of Expression
Delicacy of expression is that quality
in news writing which distinguishes the star reporter from the cub. It
may be learned, but never taught. It is this elusive element in writing
and the inability of instructors to impart it that make many journalists
say news writing cannot be taught. Delicacy of expression is not
effeminacy. It is originality; it is cleverness; it is nimbleness of wit
and beauty of phrase; it is grace; it is simplicity; it is restraint; it
is tact. It is all these, and more. It is that intuition in a star man
which forbids his beginning the same kind of story day after day with a
fixed, hackneyed type of sentence, which makes him avoid triteness of
expression. It is that something in him which compels him to avoid
affectation, to love beauty and grace, born of simplicity,
unadornedness. It is that inborn sense of good taste that restrains the
writer from indelicate, personal allusions so offensive to men and
women of refinement. All this and more is delicacy of expression, and
blest is the journalist who has it. The reporter who wrote the following
had not yet learned the art:
=THE HAVENS-MERRILL WEDDING=
At 7:30 the sounds of the wedding march scintillated
through the Havens house like tired waves laving the
shores of a mighty lake. Seldom if ever has such a
scene been witnessed in this place. The smell of
spring flowers was everywhere coming to all
nostrils. Presently there was a slight disturbance
at the right hand entrance, and then the bride
entered on the arm of her father, William Havens,
the well-known merchant. Simultaneous at the
opposite door was another disturbance, and the
bridegroom entered attended by Henry Merrill of Des
Moines. Then the two parties proceeded down the
middle aisles, meeting under a beautiful marriage
bell where the two hearts were beautifully made as
one, which was followed by congratulations all along
=MR. CRAIG WEDS MISS SCHELL=
Mr. Joe Craig and Miss Cora Schell, both of Mena,
were quietly married at the Hotel Main, Durant,
Okla., Monday, and are boarding at this hotel. Mr.
Craig is well known as a skilful bricklayer, honest
and industrious. The bride is well known in this
city and proved her worth by the years she served
the Lochridge Dry Goods Company as cashier. She is a
member of the Woodmen Circle and carries a large
insurance. We regret that she must leave, but like
Rebekah of old, she leaves home, family, and friends
to travel the journey of life with her "Isaac" (Joe)
in a distant land. We feel that the expression of
all her friends is that the best this world affords
will be theirs to the end of their journey and that
a new life awaits them in another and higher sphere.
=169. Essentials of the Sentence
If a reporter can write
grammatically correct sentences,--if he can cooerdinate and subordinate
accurately the different parts; if he can give all the pronouns definite
antecedents; if he can keep his verbs consistent, having them agree in
person and number with their subjects; if he can make effective use of
ellipsis,--his sentences will possess the first essentials of a good
sentence,--accuracy. If he can make his sentences clear and
forceful,--if he can keep grammatically connected words, phrases, and
clauses close together; if he can eliminate lengthy parenthetic
expressions; if he can avoid unnecessary shifts of subjects within
sentences; if he can make readily clear the relation of every phrase in
a sentence to every other phrase in it and adjoining sentences; if he
can put important ideas at the beginning and the end of the sentence; if
he can make his sentences short and concise; if he can acquire delicacy
of expression,--his sentences will possess the second requisite of a
good sentence,--interest. Accuracy and interest, these are the elements
that make a sentence good. And the greater of these is accuracy.
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