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Broadcast Sentence-Structure

other topics under BASICS: Avoiding "Cop Talk", Charges & Allegations, Leads & Teases, Rewriting Copy, Using Numbers

Journalism instructors often state that broadcast newswriting is supposed to sound just like everyday speech. In essence, however, writing broadcast news is more akin to writing song lyrics. Both tasks involve constructing language in a visual form (writing) for communication in an oral form (speaking or singing). Like song lyrics, broadcast newswriting adheres to patterns of language use (such as appropriate vocabulary and formulaic sentence-structure) that the audience expects to hear and will use in interpreting the communication.

Even though commercial broadcasting has been around for less than a century, radio listeners have come to expect their newscasts to be written in a particular way. Learning about broadcast sentence-structure is one of the foundations for developing effective skills at radio newswriting.

Keep it simple

Grammarians distinguish between three types of sentences: simple, compound and complex. A simple sentence contains a subject and a verb. A compound sentence is composed of two simple sentences joined by a coordinating conjunction ("and," "but," "or," "nor"). A complex sentence is composed of two simple sentences joined by a subordinating conjunction (which may be temporal, such as "when"; causal, such as "because"; or concessive, such as "although").

You probably remember this lesson from elementary school, but the distinctions remain quite relevant to broadcast newswriting. In your scripts, simple sentences are best. You will, of course, regularly use compound and complex sentences, but the clarity achieved through the use of simple sentences can rarely be surpassed.

Linguists describe English as a highly asyndetic language -- which means that clauses in the same train of thought do not always need to be connected by conjunctions or connecting particles. Such particles in English include the words "moreover," "furthermore," and "however," words that should be avoided in broadcast newswriting. Listeners are themselves capable of connecting the elements of a story if the story is presented clearly and concisely, and these listeners expect important news to be reported in simple sentences. This expectation is especially true of leads, which generally should be written as simple sentences. When a lead begins with a subordinating conjunction, listeners discount the story's urgency. This is why such leads almost always appear in feature stories or zingers.

Avoid your relatives

Relative clauses, which begin with a relative pronoun or adverb such as "who," "which" or "where," provide additional information about a noun in a sentence. Those relative clauses which interrupt the flow of the sentence should not be used in broadcast newswriting. In a text communicated visually, a reader has the words on a page or screen to help guide him back to the story after the detour of a relative clause. Listeners do not have such a guide and must rely on the speaker to provide information in readily understood clauses that are concise and uninterrupted.

A sentence with an interrupting relative clause should be rewritten into two simple sentences. Take the following example:

A clearer means of expressing the same information is through two simple sentences:

Recognize that apposition -- the placing of a noun or phrase after another noun and marked off only by commas or, in this very example, dashes -- is like a relative clause without the relative pronoun. Long, interrupting appositions, like interrupting relative clauses, should be avoided in broadcast newswriting.

Relative clauses and appositions can be used at the end of a sentence. This placement is especially useful for clauses beginning with the adverb "where," as in

Clauses beginning with "who" or "which" are acceptable when placed at the end of a sentence, but sometimes it may be preferable to write two simple sentences instead. For example,

could also be written

Be active

Finally, two very common writing faults made by beginning reporters also appear nowadays in all other types of English writing, namely the overuse both of the passive voice and of the existential "there is," "there are" construction. Use the active voice. Write sentences with subjects that are doing things and not subjects that are merely receiving actions upon them. Do not waste time stating an object's existence (this is what the "there is" construction shows). Describe that object doing something.

Simple sentences with active verbs form the basis of effective writing for radio. All other broadcast newswriting techniques are built upon the foundation laid by this type of sentence structure.

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