Book Review: Newspaper English

Book Review
© Media Watch 10 (2) 445-446, 2019
ISSN 0976-0911 e-ISSN 2249-8818
DOI: 10.15655/mw/2019/v10i2/49626


Newspaper English1
Reviewed by: Mahesh Vijapurkar*
Author: Prof (Dr.) Kiran Thakur

India is home to the world’s largest population of English-speaking people outside of the United Kingdom and the United States of America. India is home also to the world’s largest newspaper by circulation or readership, The Times of India. Though spoken English is substantively influenced by the Indian speaker’s mother tongue, there are many ‘English only’ families where their mother tongues have weakened or forgotten.

Compared to how she is spoken in the UK and UK – clipped British accents and the American drawl, using different spellings for the same word, some pronounced differently as well – the Indian English different. Indian words, mostly from Hindi, have made their way into the eminent dictionaries to be part. If mulligatawny crept into English dictionaries more than a century ago, jugad found a place in the Oxford Dictionary in 2017.

That does not mean English can or should be written in any manner one likes for there are rules of grammar. The rules are meant to provide some order and clarity. Clarity is derived from simplicity. Bombast and rhetoric are acceptable in a speech from a public platform, “Hand over a bouquet to the chief guest” sounds nicer and digestible even from the podium than “pay floral tributes.”

But, when writing news for a newspaper, clarity is a result of simple, smaller words. The small words carry as much weight as heavy words do. One should read Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to understand the impact of such writing; the reader can race through the book with ease without searching out a word’s meaning from any dictionary. Of course, local, colloquial terms used which provide the atmosphere are a different thing.

Kiran Thakur’s labor of love Newspaper English1 drives home this point where he makes the following points: write brief sentences, short paragraphs, and avoid the urge to make the copy long. Dr. Thakur2 as a journalist has been a practitioner of that kind of writing from the time he started working in the United News of India (UNI) and his later switch to academics, including research has not dimmed his enthusiasm for such writing.

He sees value in simple writing, and when he moved to teach journalism as Head, Department of Communication and Journalism, Savitribai Phule University, Pune, he wore this objective on his sleeve. Now an adjunct faculty at FLAME University dealing with research, he took this work with passion and is the result of a seven-year-long effort, aided by the University Grants Commission. The content of the work and the credentials of the author make this book valuable. It is the academic study brought out as a boo.

When competing with the Press Trust of India (PTI), one had to be not only quick and but clear. The copy in English had to be understood by the small town’s local language newspaper deskmen whose job it is to translate the news into their respective languages.

The process had to be quick, especially when deadlines were close. The speed of transmission and typesetting now available does not, however, eliminate the need for simplicity of writing.

Once in print, the news item has a function to perform. As Martin Cutts underlines in the foreword, “The first paragraph must provide the gist of the story and help them decide whether to bother reading any further. Nobody in the history of newspapers has ever read the second paragraph first. Readers only reach the second paragraph if the first has hooked them.” Also, “if you don’t get to the point immediately, your readers will go elsewhere.”

That said, it is the experience of most readers of most newspaper that to get to the point he has to wade through several lines of one or two sentences in the first paragraph and barely get an inkling of the story. It is wrongly assumed these days that the headline itself is the equivalent of the lead – Americans call it the lede – and stick to clutter of words that slow down the pace of reading and understanding. Readability is the true test of any writing.

A newspaper reader is not going to settle down with the day’s edition as if there was enough time to traverse from big paragraphs of long words in lengthy stories from column to column, and then page to page. His attention span is decreasing, and alternative outlets for news are available on the Internet on mobile phones. Mobile Apps provide digests, and mistakenly the news consumer has the mistaken belief that what arrives on the WhatsApp is as good as what a newspaper should be providing.

Newspaper English, therefore, has been brought out at probably the best time and help sensitize the news writers to change their ways. It is useful in that context. Also, despite the large English-knowing population, it has to be understood that the newspaper is not bought only by the highbrow readers but has to serve the needs of the lowest common denominator in that section of the population. It is hard to secure the return of a reader to a newspaper to which he has canceled the subscription.

Thakur has painstakingly provided a plethora of examples, each detailed and listing the inadequacies of style and structure of the news in the publications. His analysis is dispassionate; he has named newspapers from where the examples are cited. He advocates explicitly and implicitly the style of the news agencies and correctly insists that “it is easier …to switch over from the style of a news agency to that of a newspaper, but not the other way around.”

My tongue-in-cheek response to that, however, could be: Dr. Thakur, do you mean it is easier to teach students the best practices but difficult for them to unlearn the bad practices now common in newspapers?” That dig apart, I agree with that contention. He has carried out readability tests using several tools available on the Internet, and his conclusion is valid: newspapers should not only encourage simple writing but insist on it as a style requirement. But Indian newspapers are not known to have stylebooks. Not even a good do’s and don’ts.

Newspaper English has a nicely designed cover by Dr. Nachiket Thakur who is as subdued and attractive as the simple writing advocated in the pages within. This book should be a must-read for all journalism students and the faculties that try to shape them, and for the heads of the reporting and editing departments of all English-language newspapers. In the absence of stylebooks, this would serve as a guidepost.


*The reviewer is the former deputy editor of The Hindu, E-mail:

  1. Vishwakarma Publications, Pp 172, Rs 225, US$9 Online available: Amazon