The Heart of the Sentence

by Jack Hart
Jun 27, 2008 in Journalism Basics

The writer's basic tool is the sentence. But it, in turn, rests on an even more fundamental unit. Noam Chomsky, the linguist known for his "transformational grammar," argued that "the basic statement" - the subject-verb construction at the heart of the sentence - is the core unit of human thought. Every language, from German to Urdu, builds on this deep foundation.

Each basic statement links an object with an action. It tells, in its briefest form, a story. "Horse rears." "Car crashes." " Politician talks."

Writers and editors would do well to keep the basic statement in mind. It contains core meaning, and it is therefore a key to clarity. The trick is to spot it in every sentence, and to then, give it the prominence it deserves.

Doing so usually produces a particular kind of sentence, the form Roy Peter Clark dissected in "The American Conversation and the Language of Journalism; his first paper as the Poynter Institute's senior scholar.

Clark began with a brief history of American journalism's movement away from complicated sentence construction to a new simplicity.

From de Tocqueville to Orwell to E.B. White and Red Smith, he traced the rise of a form that served democratic purposes by making public affairs accessible to all. As it turned out, a special kind of sentence was especially appropriate to the task at hand.

The form, Clark said, was the "right branching sentence." Such a sentence begins with the basic statement ("A horse reared... "). Then it adds meaning with a series of language units that branch off to the right. These may include prepositional phrases (" . . . in front of Henderson Saloon. . . '") individual modifiers such as adjectives and adverbs ( "... yesterday. . . "), participial phrases (" . . . knocking parson Pugh to the ground. . . "), subordinate clauses (" . . . because the Parson failed to notice that . . . "),and even whole sentences (" . . . and the sheriff came running when…").

Diagram something like that and you get something resembling a tree lying on its side, with the trunk to the left and the branches running off to the right. It's a form that has some admirable qualities.

Foremost is clarity. Clark, noting that Chomsky located core meaning in a basic statement, pointed out that beginning with the subject and verb "MAKES MEANING EARLY."

That is, of course, consistent with our journalistic purpose, whether we are writing an inverted pyramid, a narrative or a blurb. Most often, the best way to begin any story is with the name of the protagonist and an active verb. "Evonne Murphy grabbed. . . ", "President Clinton denounced..."

English-speaking writers have not always favored that form. Flowery Victorian English was, in its perverse complexity, antidemocratic. Clark points out that "traditional English prose favored a different style with long introductory passages, the main clause discovered somewhere in the middle, or even near the period."

Such language smells elitist. It excludes a large portion of the population because it is so difficult to generate. It has the ornate outline of a potentate's palace, rather than the clean lines of democratic meeting places. It is meant to exclude, rather than inform.

As Orwell pointed out in "Politics and the English Language", it is still with us in political speech designed to hide the simple truth. Clark quoted Orwells observation that, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

Such speech still flourishes. During the Gulf War, military PIOs described bombing runs as "visiting the enemy" and civilian casualties as "collateral damage." Such phrases dripped with squid ink.

Surprisingly, the old sentence forms that Clark consigned to earlier centuries also survive in some rarefied reaches of American journalism. The long introductory phrase, for example, is a hallmark of foreign and national reporters at the large national papers and major wire services.

Such constructions bury the basic statement deep in the sentence: "In a bid designed to defuse criticism from members of his own party and to take the high ground in the debate over welfare reform, President Clinton today announced ...."

That example takes 24 words, five prepositional phrases and a few other grammatical odds and ends to reach the basic statement - "President Clinton announced."

Rather than a straight tree trunk of meaning that leads to subordinate branches, it begins with a thicket that obscures core meaning.

Such underbrush flourishes on the pages of otherwise excellent papers. Scan the national and international stories on page one of The New York Times and Washington Post. Notice how many bury the basic statement behind ponderous introductory phrases.

The readers who follow foreign and national news in the elite newspapers can no doubt decipher such monstrosities. But that doesn't mean backing into a lead is the best way to communicate a strong core idea - even for an educated audience. And it certainly doesn't mean that wholesale abandonment of the right branching sentence is appropriate to smaller newspapers. Writers and editors who ape the twisted syntax of the elite press confuse pretense with communication.

Roy Peter Clark has it right. We serve democracy, our audience and our selves with the right branching sentence. Get the basic idea first, and all else will follow

Hart is managing editor at the Oregonian, Portland, Ore.