MISSING: Verbs and articles. If found, please return to area journalists…

At just the right time in the semester, a classic plea for improved writing showed up in one of my feeds. Journalism and educational expert Deborah Potter does a great job of explaining what is happening to broadcast copy and why we desperately need verbs in it.

Anyone watching television news these days could be forgiven for thinking they’ve accidentally tuned into a strange new game show called “Hide the Verb.” No matter how hard you try, it seems, you just can’t find one.

Remember verbs? They’re the action words that come between subjects and objects, telling what happened and when. Try locating one in this NBC Nightly News script: “Less resilient, local business. Dwight’s concession stand, in the family three generations. Sales this summer off 75 percent.” Not a verb in sight.

What is going on in TV newsrooms? It seems unlikely we’re victims of some vast anti-verb conspiracy that has recruited news writers from coast to coast. Instead, this new news-speak could actually be the result of a misguided attempt to improve broadcast writing by making it more active and immediate. The goal is laudable. The results are laughable.

It’s a great read that points to a real problem we’re seeing in writing. I’ve noticed a similar problem with my text-based students and their aversion to including articles in their sentences. To wit:

“Sturgeon man was injured during a fire at his home Friday.”

“Mayor says the bill will not be approved, despite city council’s efforts.”

I tended to blame a lot of this on texting, given that as more and more of my students spent more and more of their lives typing with their thumbs, I saw this sudden drop off of “A” and “The” and “An” in the sentences they wrote. However, in reading through Potter’s piece, it might just be more “headline-ese” creeping into common writing in an attempt to make things feel snappier.

In any case, I reached out to the educational hivemind I trust for a reality check on this to see if I was the only person noticing this. Clearly, I was not:

You are not alone. The dropping of articles is one of the banes of my existence. I consistently have to get after students in all of my classes, including the copy editing classes, where they ought to know better. I would add the 280-character limit of tweets as a culprit as well as texting.

Yes!! I am seeing it and correct it daily.
yup, I call it “Tweet Speak.”
Omg, I thought it was only me. I’ve come to the conclusion it is because they only read headlines, not leads. When did they stop teaching articles (a/an/the) are necessary to make a complete sentence?
Same here! I had a student tell me recently that proper grammar was a thing of the past, that the younger generation just doesn’t care about rules of writing.

Back when Twitter moved from 140 characters to 280, I argued against it, using my “Fat Pants Theory” of writing. After that ran, I heard back from folks who said, “Look, this will improve writing because we won’t have to shorten sentences or write in headline-speak to get the point across. Well, clearly that’s not the case here, as we find that no matter how much space Twitter gives some folks, they’re going to cut the corners on things that make content readable.

So here are a few hints and tips for ways to reach your students (and I mean the kind of reach that doesn’t involve an Oscar slap) as you explain why complete sentences matter:

AUDIENCE-CENTRICITY IS YOUR GOAL: That last comment in that hivemind list made my brain twitch for a couple reasons, not the least of which is this: You’re not writing for yourself.  You’re writing for your audience, many of whom might not be old enough to remember writing in cursive on coal slates, but are at least old enough to still operate in complete sentences. Those people will be expecting you to write in a functional fashion so that you can communicate to them effectively.

Also, grammar is not a fad. You can’t BS your way out of bad writing with comments like, “Ugh… Commas are so 1993….” When you make the decision that you’re going to change the rules of language because you don’t think they matter, what you’re saying is that you know better than everyone else out there and they should come around to your way of thinking. Not exactly audience-centric.

LET’S SAY IT ALOUD: One of the tricks I’ve used to get students to break the “verb-noun” habit they developed at some point in attribution writing is to have them say verb-noun sentences aloud. So, I’ll ask them, “What did you do today?” They answer with basic statements about eating breakfast, going for a run, coming to class and so forth. Then I say those things out loud to them in verb-noun format and have them repeat them:

  • Ate I my breakfast.
  • Six miles ran I.
  • Came to class I did.

Then we do the, “Does that sound like anything you would say? If not, stop doing ‘said Smith.’ If it is, you now must dress like Yoda for class, as you pretty much sound just like him…”

Have the students read these sentences aloud without the articles or verbs in them and see how they sound. When they start sound like “caveman speak,” to quote one of the other hivemind folks, they’ll start to realize how dumb this sounds. Like most things having to do with grammar, I could spend six hours explaining it in some long, complex way and they won’t get it. If I just have the students read something aloud, when their tongue feels like its falling down a flight of stairs, they realize there’s a problem.

KNOW THE RULES BEFORE YOU BREAK THEM: Some of the best writers I have ever read break a ton of grammar and style rules. The reason that they are great is that they know EXACTLY when to break EXACTLY which rule for EXACTLY what purpose. They know the rules like the back of their hand and thus can adhere to them effortlessly, until there’s a reason to zig when the rules zag.

Ignorance of a rule is not an excuse to break it, or at least that’s what the cop that pulled my wife over told us… In any case, knowing the rules is all about understanding why we do what we do and what it does for us as writers. You earn that right, as we’ve explained here before, by being awesome at the basics to the point where you know how and when to excuse yourself from their confines.

I have told my students not only what rules I expect them to follow rigorously, but also WHY those rules matter. I also explain that once they are no longer on “Filak Island,” they can do whatever the hell they want. Until then, the rules apply. In short, show me you know how to amaze me with the rules and then we’ll talk. Otherwise, knock it off.

DEMONSTRATE DISTINCTIONS: As noted earlier, the “WHY” aspect of teaching is usually the one that sticks the best. Telling students, “It’s a rule, so follow it,” has the same feel as when their parents answer a question with, “Because I’m your mother, that’s why!”

So, look at a couple examples where distinctions matter like this:

Sheriff’s deputy resigned amid allegations of extortion.

So we’re missing the article on this one. Why does it matter? Well if it’s “A” sheriff’s deputy, this might be a bad situation, but it wouldn’t necessarily undermine the department’s ability to function. If it’s “THE” sheriff’s deputy, you have cut the county’s law enforcement in half. Also, if you had half of the department extorting people, this could be terrifying for everyone in the county, as they had almost nowhere to turn for help.

For a verb example, let’s borrow a fragment from Potter’s piece:

Sales this summer off 75 percent.

Think about how a verb can change the context of this:

Sales this summer “ARE” off 75 percent or Sales this summer “WERE” off 75 percent. In the first version, there’s hope that sales could rebound, while the second example says we’re done and we have no hope.

  • “Sales this summer REMAIN off 75 percent.” (Things were bad and continue to be so.)
  • “Sales this summer FELL off by 75 percent.” (Things suddenly took a turn for the worse.)
  • “Sales this summer EXPECTED TO FALL off by 75 percent. (Prediction for bad stuff.)

And on and on we can go. The point is, our job is to inform people to the best of our ability. Skipping words to sound cooler (or younger, apparently) might seem like a good idea, but if it costs us the ability to connect with the readers, we’ve failed.

Leave a Reply