Coping with Time & Newsweek

Nigel J. Ross

Some of the most easily-available sources of written English are American news magazines, Time and Newsweek in particular. Copies are available at newsagents throughout the world, and intermediate and advanced students are frequently tempted to buy an issue to catch up on world news and practise their English at the same time. On other occasions they may be asked to use the magazine in the classroom or in the school library. Very often, however, their original enthusiasm is dampened by a sudden awareness that they can hardly make head or tail of a large part of the magazine, despite being fairly competent with other 'real' texts they come up against.

Since articles from Time and Newsweek rank high in students' lists of 'dauntingly difficult' written texts, surely we should try to anticipate such problems and actively help students to cope with the style of language. To us, as teachers, the style may seem excessively up-to-date and even a little bizarre, but we should bear in mind that many of the features used by American news magazines are also to be found - perhaps in a toned-down form - in other 'modern' texts from all parts of the English-speaking world.

Background to Time and Newsweek

The language of Time and Newsweek has been variously referred to as 'Timespeak', 'Timese' and 'Newspeak' - the latter being a rather sarcastic pun on the insidious language of propaganda that George Orwell invented in his book '1984'. Although nowadays no one would seriously suggest that the magazines try to brainwash their readers, the magazines have, like Orwell's 'Newspeak', coined new words and expressions and have even invented new constructions. For example, they are generally credited with the inversion of the initial reporting clause as in: 'Says one market analyst, "Buy now!"' And almost any issue will reveal a good few words that are not to be found in ordinary dictionaries.

The American news magazines employ teams of in-house writers, usually called senior editors, who re-write reporters' stories in a co-ordinated house style. The senior editors are very likely to have university degrees in English, often from Ivy League universities. The fact that all articles are re-written before publication partly explains how the magazines maintain their distinctive style, a style which is usually described as 'dynamic' or 'racy'.

Vocabulary Choice

Vocabulary is a first area of 'Timespeak' that should be looked at more closely. The choice of vocabulary has been described as 'whimsical' by Geoffrey Hughes and indeed it tends to be very varied and unusual. A simple way of showing students the vocabulary spread is to ask them to sort out a number of words taken from an article, according to register. In a recent article about Spielberg's film Jurassic Park, words and expressions such as 'applied science', 'imperiled', 'capitalist exploitation', 'couture' and 'visionary' could easily be classed by students as belonging to a high register, whereas items such as 'gawkers', 'kid', 'foxy grandpa', 'megahit' and 'tie-in' clearly belong to a much lower, informal register, often bordering on the colloquial. In fact slang expressions and buzz words are not disdained. Some examples that have been seen recently include 'junk' (as in junk food), 'churn out', 'zero in on', 'freak' (as in health freak) and 'busters' (as in waste busters). This last example points to two further vocabulary traits: neologisms and wordplay.

Neologisms - newly coined words and expressions - are common in Time and Newsweek, often taking the form of inventions based on common, existing formulae. In the last few years anything that has destructive qualities has been described as a 'buster' after the successful film 'Ghostbusters'. The 'waste busters' referred to earlier are waste incinerators. A familiar expression like 'hi-tech' may well be the basis for invented terms such as 'lo-tech' or 'no-tech'. This feature is closely linked with wordplay which, while rarely reaching the levels of British tabloids, still causes problems to the uninitiated. Puns based on popular film titles are particularly common, a recent issue included the headlines 'Live Poets Society' and 'Birthing a Nation'. New vocabulary based on known terms is very widespread. Inventions noticed recently include 'underwhelmed', 'faddishness', 'nonstar', and 'filmdom'. Likewise, a noun or an adjective can be used as a verb or vice versa: examples are 'scrupled', 'democratized' and 'garbage barge'.

Register, wordplay and newly-coined words are, however, not the only keys to appreciating the vocabulary spread of American news magazines. It is also worth stressing that other lexical areas are to be found: specialised vocabulary, literary terms and foreign borrowings. Specialised words immediately give the reader the impression that the writer is an expert on the topic and therefore a reliable source of information. In an article about near misses in the air, we find such technical terms as 'in-flight safety', 'air-traffic density', 'tightly-spaced flight operations' and so on. Literary borrowings are an unusual feature in journalism and can perhaps be explained by the fact that so many senior editors have English (literature) degrees. We find poetic words, such as 'sylvan', 'balmy' and 'eschew'. Old-fashioned vocabulary might also be used: 'amid', 'divest', 'behest', and we may even come across true or invented archaisms, such as 'atop', 'aflight', 'erstwhile' and' betwixt'. Lastly, as far as the range of vocabulary is concerned, a touch of local colour is often given by using foreign words when reporting on situations abroad, eg 'diva' in an article about Italy, 'wai' to describe the Thai clasped-hands greeting, 'refusenik' in an article about the former U.S.S.R.

Helping Students with Problematic Vocabulary

Students are likely to be put off reading any more articles when they realise the wealth of vocabulary to be faced, but there are one or two shortcuts to understanding that are worth pointing out. It should be stressed that few native readers will fully understand all the less common words they come across and some may be completely new. The writers are probably quite aware of this, too, and very often the unusual words are not essential to grasp the basic meaning and/or they can be guessed in context. A very useful exercise for students is to identify some of these 'whimsical' vocabulary items and make an intelligent guess as to the meaning. Intelligent guesswork is an important skill in language learning, in any context. Secondly, the student can be helped to cope with some buzz terms that give frequent neologisms, such as the 'freak' (meaning fanatic) combinations that are so common nowadays. Inventing a few new ones is great fun!

Another particularly important way of assisting with the more unusual vocabulary - particularly with words from different registers - is to point out how articles frequently resort to using synonyms for a concept that is repeated throughout a story. For example, in an article about exchange rates, the dollar is referred to a number of times in the first paragraph variously as: 'superdollar', 'greenback', 'buck' and 'U.S. currency' as well as 'dollar', of course. By making students aware of this process, certain terms which may be new to them can be understood fairly easily - again with a bit of intelligent guesswork. A useful preparatory vocabulary-building exercise is to ask students to identify the synonyms relating to a key concept in a text - an unusual task for homework, perhaps.

Sentence Construction

Moving on to sentence construction, one of the first features to be noticed is the way that subjects are very often delayed. In many articles fewer than half of the sentences start with the subject. It is of course common to find sentences that do not begin with the subject in any kind of text, but Time and Newsweek do seem to inflate this feature, often delaying the subject by a number of lines. Here is a typical example: 'Instead of blocking a vote that called one more time on Pyongyang to allow inspection of its nuclear sites, Beijing merely abstained.' Taking a section of text and asking students to spot the subjects in each sentence is a helpful way to encourage awareness of the feature and understanding of the text.

It is not just before the subject, however, that we find extra information being added to the story; sentences tend to be packed full of information. The purpose is to give as much information in as short a space as possible, and this is a feature that 'Timespeak' shares with most newspapers and news magazines. Here is a chock-full example: 'Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, premier of Australia's northeastern state of Queensland, stood last week on a sidewalk in Brisbane, the state capital, and declared, "If you want a job well done, do it yourself." At the age of 76, when other politicians might be thinking of stepping aside, Sir Joh, as he is known, is mounting a tilt at a rather large job.' Once again, checking that students have understood what the main subject is, which verb refers to it and how the rest of the sentence relates to these basic elements will aid comprehension. Advanced students can be asked to mimic the style by combining a number of very short sentences - a very useful piece of writing practise.

A third way that articles add a great many details is through piling up long lists of adjectives. Again this is typical of journalism as a whole, but taken to extremes in American news magazines. Crystal and Davy give the following supreme example: ' said tall, grey-haired, blue-eyed, 32-year-old ship's carpenter Andrew Jones.' This illustration also shows another typical feature: the use of hyphenated compounds used as adjectives ('grey-haired'; '32-year-old'). Sometimes reasonable limits to such constructions are ignored, as in: 'By all the old-fashioned handshake and here's-what-I'm-going-to-do-for-you standards of American politics ...'

Other Miscellaneous Features

One or two last features must be mentioned. One of them has already been seen in an example above when Queensland was referred to as 'Australia's northeastern state'. Time and Newsweek regularly use the possessive form with countries, states, towns and so on. Probably it is closer to spoken language, perhaps it is easier and avoids an extra 'of' or a more complicated form (Glasgow's is simpler than Glaswegian).

The in-house writers of Time and Newsweek, particularly the latter it seems, have a love of sound in language. If we were talking about literature, we could use terms such as 'alliteration' or 'assonance', but here it is more simply a question of using sound for a playful effect. A cluttered example is: ' in California's Silicon valley benign bacteria are busily lunching on toxic chemicals. In Brandon, Fla., soil contaminated with cancer-causing PCB's is being loaded into truck-size toaster ovens ...' There's some in-built pronunciation practise, too!

A final feature that cannot be ignored is the use of metaphor, especially very striking metaphor. When describing China, we read: 'The inward-looking land of Mao Zedong is stepping forth confidently, having overcome most fears that China's identity would wither like a lotus blossom under full exposure to the outside.' At times we may even find a series of linked metaphors (what the literary expert would call an 'extended metaphor'). In the article about exchange rates mentioned above, the dollar is described as 'high-flying', 'cruising', 'falling', 'sailing', 'breaking the barrier', 'surging' and 'beginning its descent' all in one paragraph. Spotting and explaining the metaphors is a good classroom activity.

A Final Comment on Style

It is natural to wonder why we find all these features. One key reason is dynamism - the style must suit the reader. A dynamic style implies a great deal of variety (in vocabulary choice, especially) and an up-to-date approach (slang expressions, buzz words, puns on popular films, for example). A distinctive, dynamic style is also provided by the sentence construction and other features such as the possessive form. A number of literary features (sound, metaphor, literary and archaic language) can be explained at least in part by the educational background of the writers.

A Final Comment on Using Time and Newsweek with Students

A number of ways have already been suggested to help students cope with the language of American news magazines. It can often be helpful to look at a specific linguistic feature of a paragraph, such as vocabulary range, use of synonyms or sentence construction, before going on to read for meaning. Attacking an article with different coloured highlighting pens or various signs and symbols to indicate register, delayed subjects, literary features and so on is a stimulating and slightly unusual exercise ideal for pairwork or groupwork and provides some interesting artwork. More advanced students can be encouraged to carry out more complex analytical work and even to try to mimic the style or, vice versa, rewrite extracts in a more standard form of language. Whatever, an awareness of the stylistic features can lead to a greater confidence with the language, a demystification of the difficulties and improved comprehension.

   Published in Modern English Teacher (Vol 4/1, January 1995) Macmillan, London.




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