The Vanishing Verb
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TERENCE SMITH: Today in Washington, around the country, television reporters, talking like this.
JOHN KING, CNN: Those negotiations continuing. Mr. Bush speaking to reporters earlier today: Suddenly optimistic.
TERENCE SMITH: Short, staccato bursts.
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC News: Gary Condit today, the first sighting in weeks.
TERENCE SMITH: Fragments, not sentences.
JIM AVILA, NBC News: No natural enemies in North America, lives most of its life underwater.
TERENCE SMITH: Dropping most verbs, everything present tense.
CORRESPONDENT: A man alone as his wife sits in jail, admitting to killing her five children.
TERENCE SMITH: Call it “TV speak,” or the case of the vanishing verb. Whatever, it’s an abbreviated language unique to time-pressed television correspondents.
SHEPARD SMITH, Fox News Channel: Carts on the course. It’s okay for Casey Martin. Supreme Court says so.
TERENCE SMITH: Shepard Smith, the anchor of the fast-paced Fox report on the Fox News Channel, is known for his tickertape delivery.
SHEPARD SMITH: Meantime, the Navy looking for another suitable training location, the Navy secretary saying it will be tough but not impossible. The Navy using Vieques for the past 60 years.
SHEPARD SMITH: You sort of eliminate the things that get in your way in this era of multi-tasking, and sometimes verbs just aren’t necessary. It’s, “President Bush in Washington today.” I don’t need to say, “he is in Washington today.” “President Bush in Washington today, talking with Colin Powell, getting ready for a trip overseas. Telling other yesterday about what happened when, da, da, da, da.” You don’t need all those verbs.
CORRESPONDENT: Behind the discounts: A huge slowdown in business travel because of the economy.
TERENCE SMITH: TV speak is not strictly generational. Robert Hager, the veteran correspondent for NBC News, is often imitated for his clipped style.
ROBERT HAGER, NBC News: I see it as a kind of shorthand. And in part it was an effort… You get two minutes for your piece or two and a half minutes, it’s a terrible amount of information to cram in a short time. You have to keep it real simple.
TERENCE SMITH: Hager, who has been with NBC for 32 years, says television writing was more formal 20 or 30 years ago.
ROBERT HAGER: There was a day and age when editors were much more demanding about the preciseness of the sentences and the editing process, and I think, would have been much less willing to break the rules. When I first started with “The Nightly News,” we had a script editor who was… He was God. Oh, and he loved to beat up young, incoming correspondents. Oh, it was torturous. So the script approval process would be a couple of hours.
TERENCE SMITH: One of the script doctors at CBS News for many years was Tom Phillips.
TOM PHILLIPS: The expectation back in the 1970s was that we would write stuff that you could read right from the page and it would be elegant, it would have all its parts there. The sentences would be balanced. They would have their subjects and verbs and objects. You’d know where they began and where they ended.
TERENCE SMITH: And today?
TOM PHILLIPS: You hear a lot of… You hear a lot of sentences that aren’t really sentences. You hear a lot of words dropped. You hear a lot of… Kind of episodic speech with “dot-dot-dots” where the connective tissue used to be.
TERENCE SMITH: Does it work for you?
TOM PHILLIPS: I don’t like it very much. Back in those days, maybe 20 years ago, I think we had the feeling we were writing for an audience of smart 12-year-olds.
TERENCE SMITH: Who are you writing for now?
TOM PHILLIPS: Well, I think maybe a seven-year-old.
TERENCE SMITH: The telegraphic style crops up across the broadcast and cable spectrum, but it’s particularly noticeable on the “NBC Nightly News.” However, the anchor, Tom Brokaw, is not enthusiastic about it.
TOM BROKAW, NBC News: Some of it is generational, and I swarm all over it as best I can. But it’s how a lot of them were raised, how a lot of the younger reporters were raised. And I think it grows out of the cable culture, because they work not just for me anymore. They work across the line on cable.
TERENCE SMITH: But younger correspondents didn’t have to invent TV speak. It’s actually encouraged in style books, like this one, Air Words: Writing for Broadcast News. In it, the author, John Hewitt, recommends using what he calls “elliptical sentences, sentence fragments with implied but unspoken words or phrases.”
SHEPARD SMITH: I’m glad you trimmed that, by the way.
TERENCE SMITH: Time, of course, is the ultimate tyrant in television news, and Shepard Smith argues that shedding verbs, the workhorse of traditional sentence structure, permits him to shoehorn more news into less time.
SHEPARD SMITH: We’re telling more stories in our hour than any national newscast in the history of this business, I think. We’re darn close to it if we’re not, and sometimes verbs just get in the way. I don’t use them all the time when I’m talking, so I don’t use them all the time on TV.
TERENCE SMITH: He calls it “people speak.”
SHEPARD SMITH: It’s about how would I tell this story if I were telling it to a friend on a street corner while waiting for the subway or waiting for a plane? We don’t… We don’t tell stories the way we write stories. We don’t. We speak in… We speak in thoughts. We don’t speak in sentences with periods and dashes and colons and commas. That’s not how we talk. So I try to talk like I speak when I’m yakking with my buddies.
TERENCE SMITH: And script doctor Tom Phillips, who moonlights as a Shakespearean actor, says that elliptical English is nothing new.
TOM PHILLIPS: Shakespeare broke all the rules, including some I was very fussy about when I was a news editor. Leaving out words is one of his favorite techniques when he’s in a rush to tell you something. Like King Lear says, “oh, me, my heart, my rising heart. But down.” Three sentences; no verb.
TERENCE SMITH: Judging from this script, Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News has been brushing up on her Shakespeare.
KELLY O’DONNELL, NBC News: Today the farewell. In West Palm Beach, Florida, those who loved Barry Grunow, those who learned from him in the classroom, come together to remember.
TERENCE SMITH: Verbs are few and far between as she continues.
KELLY O’DONNELL: A teacher for nearly 13 years, a husband to Pamela for nine, a father to five-year-old Sam, nine-month-old daughter Lee Anne.
TERENCE SMITH: Anchor Brokaw says he does what he can to curb the technique.
TOM BROKAW: I pull the chain, you know, when I catch it, when it’s done late and say, “look this is nuts, people. It’s flying by, for one thing. And it’s not landing there in the consciousness of the viewer, and you have to be aware of that.” I have had a talk with a couple of our correspondents about slowing down, speaking in complete sentences with a beginning, middle and end, with all of the component parts.
TERENCE SMITH: And a verb?
TOM BROKAW: With a verb, right.
TERENCE SMITH: It was Shakespeare, of course, who wrote…
ACTOR: Brevity is the soul of wit.
TERENCE SMITH: But Tom Phillips argues that the best guide to television writing was provided not by the bard, but by Albert Einstein.
TOM PHILLIPS: A quote from Einstein that used to be on the wall of the “CBS Evening News,” “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”