In this episode of Thinking in English, I want to introduce you all to the weird language of English newspapers. Newspapers are full of words, vocabulary, grammar, and types of sentences that we normally don’t use in everyday life. And for this reason, it can be difficult for English learners to understand journalism. Hopefully, by the end of this episode, you will have a clearer understanding of Journalese!!

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Vocabulary List

Tabloid (n) – a type of popular newspaper with small pages that has many pictures and short, simple reports

In the UK, the Sun is the most popular tabloid

Confrontation (n) – a fight or argument 

There were violent confrontations between police and demonstrators 

intransitive verb (nco) – a verb which does not have or need an object

In the sentence “I tried to persuade him, but he wouldn’t come”, “come” is an intransitive verb

Intentionally (adv) – with a plan or purpose

The company was accused of intentionally dumping garbage into the river

Ambiguous (adj) – having or expressing more than one possible meaning, sometimes, intentionally

His reply to my question was somewhat ambiguous

To convince (v) – to persuade someone or make someone certain 

I hope this will convince you to change your mind

Abbreviate (v) – to shorten a word or words, or to make something shorter

We had to abbreviate the names of the states

Subtle (adj) – not loud, bright, noticeable, or obvious in any way

The room was painted a subtle shade of pink

In previous episodes of this podcast, I have stressed the importance of reading in improving your English ability. Reading can improve your vocabulary, help you understand sentence structure, and most importantly reading is fun! However, perhaps you have noticed that there are many different styles of writing out there! From “airport fiction,” to Shakespeare’s plays, and Victorian poetry, reading different styles of writing can be really confusing. Different styles of writing have types of vocabulary, different commonly used grammar, and ways of making sentences – and this can make reading really difficult!

One of the strangest styles of writing has been called Journalese or Tabloidese or, in simpler terms, the language of journalists. Newspapers are an excellent source of reading material. There are thousands published everyday with countless articles, in different dialects of English, and ranging from simple tabloids designed for anyone to read all the way to broadsheet and financial newspapers which write at an advanced or university graduate level. The more you read English newspapers, the more you will realise that the way journalists write is not the same style that you might find in a textbook or novel.

Let me give you an example that was highlighted in an economist article about newspaper language a few years back. In 2018, around 60 Palestinian people were killed by Israeli soldiers during a confrontation in the Gaza strip. The New York times headline, in response to this killing, was “Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the US prepares to open its Jerusalem embassy.” At first, this might not seem like a strange headline to you. I’ll read it one more time, and let’s see if you can find the issue. “Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the US prepares to open its Jerusalem embassy.” 

Well, the issue I, and many others, have with this kind of headline can be summed up in this question, “what did they die from? Old age?” By writing in the passive voice (or in this case using an intransitive verb “die” which is often confused with passive voice) the New York Times was reporting news but at the same time avoiding accusing anyone of a crime or wrongdoing. Think about the difference between these two sentences;  “Soldiers kill dozens of protesters” and  “Dozens of protesters killed by soldiers.” They describe the same thing, but have very different feelings.  And this use of passive voice, as well as other forms of Journalese, is very common throughout journalism. At school and university, we are often taught to only use passive voice when necessary – Journalism does the opposite. 

Newspaper headlines can also be very confusing to non-native speakers, at least at first. This is because, especially in tabloids, headlines need to be short and eye catching. An example like Employees Blast Bosses could easily be a tabloid headline. And again, at first, it seems like a perfectly normal sentence. It has a subject, verb, and object. But, it doesn’t mean anything. It is intentionally vague. You need to read the article to find out what the journalist is reporting. This vagueness can sometimes result in headlines being ambiguous, or having two possible meanings. Take this famous example: “stolen painting found by tree.” As the journalist chose to write passively, there are two possible meanings to this headline. The incorrect meaning is “a tree found a stolen painting”; the correct meaning is “someone found a stolen painting next to a tree.”

Why does journalese exist? Space. A lot of reasons come down to space, especially in a headline. When you only have a limited space to write a headline which will convince a reader to look at your article, Journalists will try to put as much information as possible into a short space. And often, grammar and vocabulary suffer the consequences. Newspaper articles and other forms of popular media often use over-abbreviated and unnatural language. This obsession with space even applies to the letters journalists choose to use. M and W are annoying for journalists as they are wider than most other letters, while the letter I is narrow and perfect. Short words that are full of meaning are very useful; rise is better than growth, bid is better than attempt. 

Space is not the only reason for journalese. Journalists also try to be as exciting as possible – they want everyone to read their articles and buy their newspapers. Therefore, newspaper articles often use more exciting words than we would use in real conversation. Rant is a more exciting alternative to talk, agony is more exciting than sad or pain. Furthermore, journalism uses many, many cliches. Now, I’ve mentioned cliches before in the George Orwell episode (i’ll link to it in the description and in the blog!). Cliches are overused expressions or phrases, and Orwell certainly didn’t like cliches; to him they are uninteresting and boring. However, because they are so overused most people understand cliches straight away. Journalism isn’t supposed to be difficult to read, and cliches are an effective way to communicate information quickly! So when you read newspapers, be prepared to find lots of cliches!

Robert Hutton has described the language newspaper use as the “strange language of the news,” and I think this is quite appropriate! He says that “Journalists love talking to us in a language that most of us don’t actually speak.” He explains some of the phrases that are only used by journalists, and explains how newspapers try to make stories interesting for all readers. For example, a newspaper from Scotland will normally include some connection to Scotland in their articles, while a newspaper from Beijing will try to connect the same story to Beijing. 

There are many phrases and expressions used in newspapers, but not often in conversations. I can’t list them all here, obviously, but I’ll include a few. In the language of journalese, temperatures ‘soar,’ Costs ‘skyrocket,’ Fires ‘rage’ and rivers ‘rampage,’ Projects are ‘kicked off,’ Opponents ‘weigh in,’ Buildings are ‘slated for demolition’ or perhaps they are ‘tagged’. In journalese, people get a ‘go-ahead’ and projects get a ‘green light’.

So, is the language used by journalists bad? It definitely has critics! First, as mentioned before, journalese is cliched. Journalists will use the same expressions, phrases, and metaphors for years or even decades; perhaps readers would like some more interesting styles of writing! Second, lazy writing can encourage lazy thinking. Journalists don’t have a lot of space, want to make their articles as interesting as possible, and sell as many newspapers as possible – this means that often articles have to be controversial. The world is often more subtle than newspapers would suggest. Third, why not just write in normal English? I think it would be better. Journalese has been described as a sign of a bad story – a good story doesn’t need strange language to be interesting. And finally, although the language of journalism started as a way of simplifying writing, it is now less clear and more complicated than normal English!

On the other hand, are there any good points for journalese? Well, when there is not much space, it is quite effective! Especially in headlines, the ‘strange language of journalism” is often necessary. Second, although it’s not always clear, journalese is exciting! It can make articles more interesting to read. And finally it is familiar! Once you have read enough newspapers, you will be able to quickly learn how to read and understand the language! 

Final Thought 

There are many styles of writing, and it is important for English learners to understand how different formats use different vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure! Newspapers use a strange language, which we normally don’t use in real life, but learning and understanding it will make it a lot easier to read articles! Whether you think the language is bad, good, or confusing, it can be influential. For example, the phrases ‘mad cow disease’ and ‘test-tube baby’ started in newspapers but are now commonly used! Can you think of any examples of journalese? Or have you ever seen a strange newspaper headline?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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