The way in which a sentence begins really matters. Whether it’s the opening line of the Gospel according to St John: “In the beginning was the word …”, or the introduction to a story in this newspaper: “Egypt has opened its border with Gaza …”, those first words are the starting point for the message.
While the first words of a news story set the scene and require very careful selection, once you have moved into the story, there are lots of more mundane sentence beginnings that, although important, are often highly formulaic. Searching through the Guardian Weekly archive, I can identify a top 20 of three-word sentence beginnings that, when taken with the words which follow them, constitute a sort of journalist’s toolkit.
The most frequent of these are: It is a (3,722), This is a (2,677), There is a (2,619), One of the (2,333), and It was a (2,227). On their own these aren’t that exciting. However, when these combinations are linked up with other words and phrases, they create a mix-and-match of sentence starts. The most frequent combinations are typically used to summarise a preceding argument or narrative, and to prepare the reader for the next stage in the story. Thus, with It is a we find: measure of, matter of,shame that, tribute to and kind of; and This is a combines most frequently with: matter of, book about, man who, very important andmoment of.
There is a typically introduces an existential statement either by the writer, or by someone whose views are being reported. In the Guardian Weekly there appear to be lot of (corruption, risk, noise), sense of(obligation, desperation, despair), great deal, danger that and real danger.
One of the is interesting because it is the first of the three-word combinations that introduces an evaluation. With this phrase, the writer is able to comment on things that (matter), are most striking, most important, most controversial or are most powerful.
It was a, in contrast, is the first to contain a past tense. This phrase combines most often with: bit of, case of, day of, far cry and kind of.
So, next time you’re stuck for how to start the next sentence, one of these journalistic standbys might come in handy.
Chris Tribble is a lecturer in applied linguistics at King’s College London
Chris Tribble – Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 5 July 2011