information structure in newspaper sentences

I don't know that I've ever mentioned here that I was raised in a funeral home. (Actually, that's easily checked, isn't it? And I have mentioned it before.) That little fact might go some way toward(s) explaining some of my personality quirks. (I like to think of them as endearing, but you may think of them as weird.) It certainly goes some way toward(s) explaining why I'm reading a book called The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson, a celebration of the art of obituary writing.

In my childhood home (and perhaps now my two funeral-directing brothers' homes) the obituary page is always read first--both to check whether the newspaper made any mistakes in the obits that my dad had written and, more (de)pressingly, to see what business had been lost to the competitors. But those were local newspapers that print the obituaries of just about everyone who dies in the area. They are important for their role in announcing the death and the funeral/memorial arrangements to the local community. Now, I could write an entire blog about the differences between American and British funerary customs and the funeral industry (but I have enough procrastination methods, thank you). One difference is the timing of Christian and non-religious funerals. (Jewish and Muslim funerals must happen relatively quickly after the death.) In the US, you'd expect the funeral to be 2-5 days after the death. In the UK it's more likely to be a week or two later, in my experience, and I've wondered if part of the reason for this is because of the lesser role of funeral-detail-giving obituaries in newspapers in the UK. When I've asked why funerals are put off for a couple of weeks after the death, the answer I've been given is "so that we can get in touch with everyone". Sometimes that means by writing a letter and depending on the post/mail.

Johnson focuses on the types of obits that are more concerned with paying tribute to the great and the good (and sometimes the horrible)--the kind that are more usually found in national newspapers in the UK and the major city newspapers in the US. In one chapter, she describes the structure of a typical obit, assigning names to particular parts. The typical first sentence is what she calls the tombstone, and she notes an interesting difference between UK and US obituaries. See if you can spot it in her examples:
Jeannette Schmid, the professional whistler who has died in Vienna aged 80, performed with Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich; she had been born a man and had fought in Hitler's Wehrmacht before undergoing a sex change in a Cairo clinic. (Daily Telegraph, UK)

James R. Garfield II, father of the modern Cleveland auto show and great-grandson of an American president, died of a heart attack Tuesday at LakeWest Hospital in Willoughby. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, US)
In both examples, like most obit opening lines, two kinds of information are presented: the fact (and some of the circumstances) of the person's death and an abbreviated description of who they are/what they are remembered for. What is different is the order and embeddedness of the information. UK obits tend to put the fact of death in a relative clause (who has died in Vienna aged 80), which in this example is linked to an appositive (the professional whistler). Strip away these 'extras', and the main clause is about the person's life (Jeannette Schmid performed with Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich...). US obits do the opposite. In this particular example, the biographical detail is in an appositive (father of the modern Cleveland auto show and great-grandson of an American president), though in other examples it is in a relative clause. Thus, the main clause in the US version reports the news of the death (James R. Garfield II died of a heart attack Tuesday at LakeWest Hospital in Willoughby).

So both versions give the identifying information and the 'news', but they do so with differing focus. There are a couple possible reasons for this difference. One, which Johnson notes, is the fact that US obituaries tend to give more information about the demise of the deceased. In the Telegraph example, we just get the fact of death and Schmid's age, whereas The Plain Dealer gives us Garfield's cause, day and place of death. (His age would undoubtedly be made clear elsewhere in the obit, e.g. by birth and death dates at the beginning or end.) If you have a lot of information to impart, it's more awkward to do so in an appositive or a relative clause. So, the UK paper can get away with a quick who has died aged 80 in the middle of the sentence, whereas the US paper leaves the heavy-lifting for the end of the sentence, in the main clause. Now, as a hypochondriac, ghoul and wannabe epidemiologist (just some of the charming traits left by my sickness-and-death-immersed childhood), I find the lack of death details to be the greatest disappointment in the otherwise great British obituary tradition. Tell me how people died! {I/E}nquiring minds want to know! (AmE advertising catchphrase) I attribute it (in part) to the British sense of privacy. It's just not decent to put people's illnesses on parade in newspapers. However, I've noticed more and more death details in UK obits the longer I've lived here. The younger the deceased, the more likely they'll tell you the cause of death.

The other (but not unrelated) possible reason for the difference in information structure in these sentences is differing ideas about the purpose of obituaries in a newspaper. The US structure seems to be treating the obit as news--so the main point has to be made in the first sentence, and that main point is the news of someone's death. The UK structure seems to be more about presenting a remembrance of the deceased. Like UK funerals, UK obituaries can also be quite a while after the person has actually died. Yesterday's (17 November) Guardian, for example, has an obituary for a marine biologist who died on 27 October. (The other two obits are in their 'Other Lives' series of obituaries for people who might not be famous, but who were really decent people--in this case a disability activist and a head teacher [AmE school principal]. These are written by friends/family of the deceased, and don't give birth/death dates.) An obituary published two weeks after a death is not 'news' in the same sense as one published within a couple of days, so it seems to be serving the purpose of remarking on the person and their death, rather than reporting it. UK obituaries have the reputation of being more colo(u)rful than their American counterparts, and this remembrance-rather-than-reporting element probably has a lot to do with the development of that tradition.

Reading about this reminded me of a query from reader Bill P some time ago, which also has to do with the order of information in UK and US newspapers. Bill wrote:
Am I right in thinking that American newspapers routinely say "rising to 112 from 111" whereas the British usage is likelier to be "rising from 111 to 112"?
Since I don't read the finance pages as thoroughly as I read the obituaries, this didn't ring a bell for me. So Bill kindly sent a couple of examples:
First the hard economic facts: The Conference Board this morning said its Consumer Confidence Index fell to 95.6 from a revised 99.5 in September. [I don't know which paper this came from, but Bill says it's from a US paper]

In Mexico, for example, ...inflation fell from 35 per cent to 7 per cent. [Financial Times, UK]
The link between obituaries and these examples is rather tenuous, but what they have in common is a difference in journalistic style with respect to what information should receive attention. The UK style, as Bill has identified it, is chronological in nature: it started at X and now it's at Y. The US style puts the current information before the old: it's at X now, as opposed to the Y it used to be. Checking a couple of newspaper sites shows that Bill's observation of the 'to...from' construction does indeed seem to be an AmE style. I searched (using Google) the Guardian (UK) and the Boston Globe (US) sites for "fell from * per( )cent to" and "fell to * per( )cent from". The * is a wildcard, and I found both per cent and percent on the Guardian site and percent on the Globe site:

fell from...to50
fell to...from
All of the to...from cases on the Guardian website were 'feed articles' from Reuters. While this is a UK-based news agency, it may be more likely that the writers are from other countries/news organi{s/z}ations. (The locales of the three feeds I could see were Istanbul, Paris and Washington, DC.)

So--well spotted, Bill! Can any journalists out there tell us whether or not to...from/ ordering is something that is taught to journalists (as part of a paper's style guide, etc.)? Or is it something that one picks up without reali{s/z}ing it?


  1. It's fairly clear to me that the "to...from" style is just a special case of the desire to get the new facts in the story first, since the assumption is that the writer can, and often will, stop reading the story at any time.

    As a former Reuters employee (though not a reporter), I can say authoritatively that the city in a story's dateline is the city from which the story was filed, and in almost all cases (except for things like active war zones) where the reporter was located when writing it.

    The dateline also defines the meaning of "here" in a story (as in "It is widely believed here ..."), as well as the meanings of "today", "yesterday", and "tomorrow".

  2. Arrggh. Of course it's the reader, not the writer, who can and often will stop reading the story at any time.

  3. I wasn't doubting that the reporters weren't where their dateline said they were, but rather questioning whether we could count on Reuters reporters being British. If they're in London, probably, but if they're in the US, they could very well be American employees of Reuters or if they're in Istanbul, they could be a French reporter who happens to be there and doing some reporting for Reuters, right? I expect that international journalism has a fairly international set of people working for it.

  4. The backwards order in US papers has always driven me (AmE) bonkers, though I understand the reason. I think it must be in style manuals. It's pretty unlikely that so many good journalists could do the opposite of what is most natural. On the other hand, it could be that I only notice it when it's done backwards.

    I hesitate to ask (but evidently can't resist): LG, have you seen Six Feet Under? Any opinions?

  5. I've memori{s/z}ed Six Feet Under. There isn't as much sex, drugs or angst at our house, but it gets the mundane details of the business right--unlike many others screen representations of the funeral biz. For instance, I got totally distracted in watching My Girl by the fact that they treat being a funeral-home make-up artist/receptionist as being nine-to-five job. In the funeral business, you work when people die. There are no business hours.

  6. We need to be careful about generalizations.

    Here is the NY Times on the death of Norman Mailer.

    Norman Mailer, the combative, controversial and often outspoken novelist who loomed over American letters longer and larger than any other writer of his generation, died early yesterday in Manhattan. He was 84.

    The cause was acute renal failure, his family said.

    Here is the Times of London.

    Norman Mailer, the macho prince of American letters who for decades reigned as the country's literary conscience and provocateur with such books as The Naked and the Dead, has died.

    Mailer, 84, died of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital early on Saturday, said the author's official biographer J Michael Lennon.

    There is no difference in the focus of information in these obituaries for the same person.

  7. I'm a little surprised to see you say that UK funerals often take place a week or two after the death. I would think that most of the delay would be because of lack of an available slot at the crematorium. I've never heard of a routine funeral taking place much more than a week later, and certainly in my family 5 days is about normal - my mother died earlier this year overnight Sunday/Monday and the only slots that were available at the crematorium were two early on the following Friday morning, and one, which we took, mid-morning on the Thursday. You can't have the funeral too soon after the death, as you have to get the death notice in the local newspaper to let people know about it - this was a problem when my father died because he died on the Friday evening before a holiday weekend, so we couldn't even get the notice published until Tuesday!

    Things were complicated by the death of an uncle two days after my mother, so his burial was scheduled for the following Monday as we didn't want two funerals in the family on successive days, and I don't think you can have a funeral at the weekend nowadays, though I remember my grandfathers' funeral was held on New Years Day 1966, which if I recall was a Saturday.

  8. Yes, these are generali{s/z}ations. But any social science is based on generali{s/z}ations. It is an observed tendency, but we shouldn't be surprised to find variations on it.

  9. My last comment was directed to Bob Y, of course, but Arwel's intervened while I was responding to Bob.

    So for Arwel: The two funerals that I've needed to go to in the UK (though one I couldn't attend) happened 10 and 14 days after the deaths.

    You may be right that it's about slots at the crematorium--not an issue in America, as even if you're cremated (and most people aren't), the crematorium is not part of the ceremony. The funeral will be at a church or funeral home--the crematorium usually has no chapel.

  10. LG, since you're keen on Six Feet Under, I might also recommend Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (on the off chance that you haven't heard of it).

  11. I guess the structure would depend on which of the numbers is more striking - the same would be placed first. Thus, 35% inflation is certainly alarming - and hence of interest - for most target readers. So is any drop in a confidence index.

    In case the numbers are of similar magnitude, persoanl preference of the writer could determine the order.

  12. James, yes I've read and recommend Fun Home.

    Aks, the fact that we've got such clear national boundaries for the from/to phenomenon indicates that it's more than personal preference or newsworthiness of the numbers. After all, some 'to' numbers would be newsworthy in the UK too, but the pattern is very clearly a chronological ordering. It's not a personal (idiolectal) preference, but a dialectal (if we want 'dialect' to include journalistic stylistics!) difference.

  13. I didn't watch it myself, but the excellent series Frontline (PBS) recently aired "The Undertaking," billed as:"[A} moving and powerful film, ...enter[ing] the world of Thomas Lynch, a poet and undertaker whose family for three generations cared for the dead -- and the living...."

  14. The URL was truncated. it should end:

  15. His books (particularly The Undertaking) are much better than the documentary about him, in my opinion.

  16. In my childhood all adults turned to the deaths page of the newspaper first. Funeral-going is a big obligation in Ireland, you would probably attend the funeral of, say, your neighbour's uncle, or your cousin's wife's father.

    Irish Catholic funerals used to always happen on the third day (day of death - wake may or may not occur, day 2 - Removal of Remains in the evening to Catholic church, short religious ceremony attended by people who can't make funeral next day, day 3 - Funeral Mass at say 11 a.m. followed by burial in cemetary. In Dublin no funeral masses are held on a Sunday and must wait until Monday. Occasionally the whole shebang would be delayed if a relative had to come from abroad. Embalming has probably only become common in the last 20 years.

  17. Perhaps there is a more subtle reason for the difference in Obit styles. (particularly the listing of facts.)
    After a recent death in the family, I was very happy that I did not have to recant what happened every time I saw someone new (nothing horrible, but still). Most people had read the Obituary and knew the vital details.
    I think that, while the fact that it is treated as news makes sense, I have always seen these items as helping the family. It is an honor for the person as well, but it takes a little of the burden of information out of the family's hands.

  18. I used recant where I shouldn't have...not sure what I was thinking there...

  19. Some of my British friends refer to the difference in information structure as a difference between being a) direct and b) polite.

  20. One of my pet peeves about obits is when one DOESN'T know the cause of death, at least in US obits. I know it's a matter of privacy and all that, but it's also a historic record.
    Does that happen a lot in the UK?

  21. The idea of "historic record" is I think one of the more important uses of obituaries in the US. As an American, the idea that the newspaper would be a primary tool for informing loved ones of the death seems bizarre to me; not only do most loved ones live outside the circulation range of our local paper (and national papers are only going to print obituaries for national figures), but even locally I don't know very many people who read the paper. Leaving it to the newspaper would be a sure way to make sure that almost no one knew about the death.

  22. Roger, I answered your Q in the post--UK obits are less likely to have cause of death.

    Jonathan, I think there's a big difference between small towns/rural areas and bigger places on the point of the 'announcement' factor of the obit--though I agree that they also serve as historic record. It's also probably changing quite a bit as the nature of the culture changes. But in my small town in a rural county, you'd call family and close friends to let them know of the death, but a lot of people would come to the funeral (or other memorial events) because they read about it in the paper or heard about it from their church. It still works that way in my town, but I can see that it's changing and has already changed in other kinds of communities.

  23. "" is obligatory in our (mainly BrE) style guide.

  24. IN the Catholic areas of Sri Lanka the wake lasts a week. Dozens or hundreds of people will be sitting at the deceased's house, or more likely in the garden. chatting quietly and playing cards until the evening after the funeral.

    Attending the funeral itself doens't seem that important. I once turned up to a wake, with twenty or thirty people sitting around, to ask after a couple of hours when the funeral was. "It was this morming" I was told in a tone of voice that suggested nothing was amiss.

  25. Endorse Eimear's synopsis of the Irish Way of Death. There's plenty of space for new graves, and I think there's only one crematorium in the Republic of Ireland (in Dublin). They were going to build a second one, at a place in Cork called (wait for it ...) Ovens.

    Getting back to language, in Ireland, an Obituary is only for public figures; the small announcements printed near the back of the paper are called Death Notices. In rural areas, these read out on local radio after news bulletins.

  26. The obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph recently summed up the big difference between US and UK practice: see here for full blog

    "Obituaries are about life; death is only the excuse for the piece. That's one reason the Telegraph's obits tend not to go into the endless gruesome detail of what, precisely, caused the death, unless it's particularly relevant. American obits always do, but they seldom tell you the person's date of birth."

    On the subject of Irish funerals, my Irish wife and her friends and relatives are always shocked and surprised at the time it takes Britons to get funerals over with.

    Finally, as someone who has been a financial writer and a production journalist on business magazines and newspaper pages, I can say that there's no actual rule about the order of "from ... to" in describing financial figures and falls, putting "from" first just seems the natural and most helpful way to do it - youi don't have to hold the "to" figure in your mind while you absorb the "from" figure and work out how big the fall was./ It's like saying someone fell "to the ground from ..." - you know how serious it is quicker if you say they fell "from a 10th storey window" or "from a second storey window" first.

  27. In the style guide of the 'New York Times' (p236 of the 1999 edition), in a section on reporting numbers, is the following:

    'When reporting a rise or a fall, give the "to" figure first (in spite of logic), to prevent misreading as a range: "In a week, the stock rose to $25 from $17.75." And: "The price fell to $850 from $998."'

    This suggests that American usage is based on a style decision to avoid misreading.


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