English tips for budding journalists

For many journalists today, English is the primary language used for news reporting on radio, television, online, and in print. If you’re an aspiring journalist you’ll be expected to have a firm grasp of the English language and its grammar rules.

Here are some tips to help you.

Journalistic language

English is a complex language. The English language spoken every day in the street differs from the type of English language you’ll hear on TV, in the workplace, as well as in the newspapers, on television or radio news.

Journalistic language is used to deliver the news across a range of formats.

What is journalistic language?

Simple – your main task as a journalist is to help people understand what is happening around them. Not every reader will have your knowledge of language, so you must simplify it for them. You should be able to examine the most complicated issues and events then translate them into straightforward, simple language which your audience can understand. This means writing in short, sharp, concise sentences.

Formal – it avoids being colloquial. In order to inform as many readers, viewers or listeners as possible, regardless of their own language skills, formal language is used. This is the ‘proper’ English that is taught in schools and is easily understood by everyone in the country. It means avoiding the use of slang, and words and phrases that some readers might not recognise.

Concise – if you’re a journalist working for a newspaper or website you need to be able to stick to a word count. This is the number of words required for a particular article. Word counts are needed in order for the newspaper or website to manage space and accurately create its layout. If you’re a journalist working in radio or television you need to be aware of airtime – again, this restricts the length of the piece you are working on, in order to make sure it fits into the news programme.

With a larger word count or more airtime you can cover more issues. With a smaller word count or less airtime, you need to be able to use concise language to fit all of the important points of your story into your news piece.

The importance of grammar, spelling and punctuation

Bad grammar, spelling or punctuation can affect meaning. Get it wrong and you can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Journalists also need to be incredibly accurate with the facts and information they convey, so the correct spelling of names and places is vital too.

You don’t want to confuse or mislead your readers, so grammar, spelling and punctuation are very important. Here are some grammar basics that will help to make your journalistic writing more effective.

Reported speech

Journalism often involves reporting what another person has said. For this we can use direct speech – quoting the speaker’s exact words in inverted commas – or we can use reported (indirect) speech.

The thing to be aware of is that if the ‘said’ word (‘claimed’, ‘insisted’) is in the past tense, the verb in the reported speech must be changed so that the tenses always match. For example, imagine politician Alan Smith says: ‘I am resigning.’ You can write:

  • Present tense – Alan Smith says he is resigning

  • Perfect tense – Alan Smith has said he is resigning

  • Past tense – Alan Smith said he was resigning

  • Singular, plural and collective nouns

Singular and plural nouns should not be mixed. For example:

  • The jury (singular) took fours hours to reach their (plural) verdict is incorrect

  • The jury (singular) took four hours to reach its (singular) verdict is correct

Collective nouns, such as governments, companies and other bodies, should be treated as singular.

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