Grammar for news

When is it best to use an active or passive voice in your writing? Why is consistency so important? Get some answers to common grammar questions.

This page is part of our Writing: The English language section.

At its heart, news is about people doing things. Activity is interesting. Direct. Clear. Somebody is doing/has done something to someone.

Where you can, write sentences with subjects that are doing things - and not simply receiving actions upon them.

Compare these two sentences:

  • A meeting will be held by the company's directors next week.
  • The company's directors will meet next week.

The first is an example of the passive voice; the second is the active voice.

Don't be put off - it's really very simple:

  • Active voice: A does B
  • Passive voice: B is done (usually by A).

Giving life to your scripts

The active voice will help to give your scripts some vitality and life. It can also make a weak sentence more emphatic and give it greater impact. Compare these examples. The first is in the passive; the second active:

  • There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.
  • Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.

The 'there is', 'there are' construction is overused.

Why waste time stating that something exists when you could get on and describe the action? The imagery in the second version is so much more vivid and powerful and helps the listener to imagine what went on.

Sometimes, though, the passive is better:

  • Active: A rhinoceros trampled on Prince Charming at a safari park today.
  • Passive: Prince Charming was trampled on by a rhinoceros at a safari park today.

In this example the focus of the story is Prince Charming, not the rhinoceros. You want the royal name at the beginning of the sentence because that is where it will have most impact.

Passive voices as a safety net

Governments, politicians and officials of all kinds love the passive because individual actions are buried beneath a cloak of collective responsibility. They say 'mistakes were made' instead of 'we made mistakes' - and use phrases such as 'in the circumstances it was considered', 'it will be recognised that' and 'it was felt necessary that...'

Used in this way, the passive takes the life out of the action and distances it from any identifiable source. When things go well, the minister, company chairman or football manager says: 'I decided on this course of action.' When the response is less positive, this becomes: 'It was thought to be the right thing to do at the time.'

Collective nouns

Plural or singular?

There is no rule of grammar; collective nouns can be either singular or plural. A lot depends on whether the organisation is seen as a singular entity or as a collection of individuals.

Natural writing

It is more natural to write 'The committee park their cars in the field' than 'The committee parks its cars', because the committee is being thought of as a single group of separate people. It would also be correct to write 'The committee has decided to ban cars from the field', because the committee in this case is being seen as a single body.

Similarly, 'The Cabinet are discussing education' (because it takes more than one to have a discussion) but 'The Cabinet is determined to push through the changes' (where its members are acting together).

Consistency is key

There is one rule you must follow, though: be consistent. Do not write: 'The jury was out for three hours, before they reached their verdict.'

It is incredibly easy to change from singular to plural within a sentence if you allow your concentration to lapse. 'The company has issued a profits warning which could have a serious impact on their shares'... 'A team of scientists has arrived in Hong Kong. They will start their investigations into the outbreak of smallpox tomorrow.'

In sport, teams are always plural. 'England are expected to beat Andorra'... 'Chelsea have extended their lead at the top of the Premiership.'

Danglers in writing

Sound nasty - and they're pretty commonplace. Merriam-Webster's dictionary has this definition: 'To occur in a sentence without having a normally expected syntactic relation to the rest of the sentence.'

What does that mean? Well, see what you make of these sentences:

  • If found guilty, the Football Association could fine the Arsenal players.
  • After eating my lunch, the waiter engaged me in conversation.
  • When trying to log on, the system rejects my password.

Phrases at the beginning of a sentence need a noun or a pronoun and will cling to the first one that comes along. This can make your writing nonsensical.

In these examples, the Football Association is not at risk of being found guilty; the waiter did not eat my lunch; and the system is not trying to log on.

If your writing causes confusion so that listeners or readers have to pause and check parts of your sentence to work out exactly what you mean, you have lost them.

Fewer or less?

‘Fewer' means 'not as many'; 'Less' means 'not as much'.

A commonly quoted example used to highlight the distinction is: 'There are fewer cars on the road, which means there is less traffic.'

These two sentences offer another useful reminder of the difference:

  • The fewer people know about this the better.
  • The less people know about this the better.

The rule does not work if the number is counted as a quantity or as a unit:

  • She paid less than £10 for it.
  • His last jump was less than 15 feet.

May or might?

The difference between these two words is gradually being eroded. There are many occasions now when they are interchangeable. They offer varying and subtle degrees of certainty. 'The governor might resign' suggests a possibility; 'The governor may resign' indicates a little more probability.

The audience says: "The reporter misused the term 'may'. She said in relation to the anti-terror raids that 'the police may have faced a major incident', when in fact the grammatically correct phrase should have been 'the police might have faced'. Does the BBC still consider the correct use of English language important because standards seem to have slipped considerably in recent years?"

'May have' and 'might have' cause even more difficulty. We 'may have beaten Australia' suggests a lack of knowledge; 'perhaps we did, perhaps we didn't, I'm not sure.'

We 'might have beaten Australia' suggests that if things had been different (wetter, drier, breezier), if that disputed try had been given, or if our forwards had been a little more effective, there was a chance that victory could have been ours.

Reported speech

This is otherwise known as indirect speech - and many find it confusing. A lot of people have never been taught reported speech and this is a pity because it can help you to be more clear and concise.

Briefly, it involves taking what was actually said and reporting it - 'The judge said that...' followed by what the judge said.

The difficulty is that if the 'said' word ('claimed', 'insisted') is in the past tense, as here, the verb in the reported speech must be changed.

So, in the fairy tale, what the wolf actually said was: 'I will huff and puff and blow the house down.' As direct speech, that's fine.

But if you want to incorporate this threat into a script, the verb in the direct speech cannot be a simple present tense.

  • Right: 'The wolf said he would huff and puff and blow the house down.'
  • Wrong: 'The wolf said he will huff and puff and blow the house down.'

The change to the verb is not needed, of course, if you are directly quoting what was said, as in 'The wolf said: "I will huff and puff and blow the house down."'

You may ask: 'Why bother? The listener can easily work out what I mean.'

Listeners and readers should not have to work out anything. Take this example: "The chairman of the BBC announced that because of public demand many news programmes on radio and television would be doubled in length. The details will be given next week."

What is the source of that second sentence? Is it the newsreader or reporter? You cannot tell. But when written properly...

"The details would be given next week"

...it is clear that the source is the BBC chairman and that the journalist is continuing to report what he or she announced.

Split infinitives

So-called 'split infinitives' have long been a source of heated debate. Whether the verb form using 'to' ('to do', 'to ask', 'to go') is a genuine infinitive is a moot point.

It's certainly what most grammarians since the 17th century have called an infinitive - yet it's clearly not the form of the verb stripped back to its basics.

Whether 'to boldly go' really is a split infinitive or a phrasal verb with an intervening adverb depends on your 'superstition' - according to the great English grammarian HW Fowler.

The truth is, there is no grammatical rule which says you cannot split 'infinitives' - but there are plenty of audience members who get almost apoplectic if they hear or read one.

It is sometimes definitely better to split: 'Can banks ever hope to fully recover their share values?'

This sounds much better than moving 'fully' in front of 'to recover' or behind it.

Robert Allen is quoted in Fowler's Modern English Usage: "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19th Century. Raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned."

That or which

This is not something to get too concerned about. It is absolute nonsense to suggest that 'which' is somehow grander than 'that'. And on many occasions you can miss out the pronoun altogether, as with 'The car she was driving' or 'This is the outfit I'll be wearing tonight.'

When you do use them, a useful guide is: 'that' defines, 'which' informs. This is not a cast iron rule, but it can help.

'This is the house that Jack built, but I think the one next door, which Jack also built, is more attractive.'

Note how these next two sentences mean different things:

  • 'The police stopped the second car that was driven by a woman.'
  • 'The police stopped the second car, which was driven by a woman.' 

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