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Jon Beaupré is a voice and performance consultant for radio and television performers. Under the name Broadcast Voice, he provides private training and workshops for reporters, anchors, sports and weather casters, and others working in electronic and broadcast media. He teaches in the Broadcast Communications program at California State University at Los Angeles, and conducts workshops and seminars with the Associated Press Radio and Television Association. He has been a fixture on the convention circuit, teaching workshops at a wide range of specialty journalism and broadcast conventions and stations on both coasts of the U.S.

Breath of Fresh Air

September 10th, 2001

While pondering the vagueries of the English language, it occurred to me that it was peculiar that a language with perhaps ten to twenty thousand words in the vocabulary, we normally speak in sentences of five to twenty five or so words. Why would that be?

It’s not because we can’t be more complex – clearly, print writers write in sentences considerably more complex and lengthy than this magical five to twenty five zone. After some thought, I think I stumbled upon the reason: five to twenty five words is approximately the length of sound that can be easily supported by a full breath of air.

This is to say, yes, we often speak in shorter sentences and even on occasion in phrases longer than twenty five words, but on the whole, this five to twenty five range seems fairly easy to sustain with an average large sized breath.

From this idea, a number of principles flow. First, the concept of a ‘sentence’ is a graphic one. We write sentences, although we just as often speak in non-sequiturs, incomplete thoughts, and general ideas that couldn't strictly be called sentences. So when we use the word "sentence" when speaking about on-delivery, it comes with the idea that we mean the broader range of expressions that we speak – sometimes even non verbal vocal sounds that carry meaning.

Second, this means as you go through your copy, and break it down into workable chunks (see "Marking Copy" in previous installment of Sounds Good), the typical broadcast copy works best in units of two or three of these breaths. That is to say, you can certainly use shorter sentences, to add emphasis, and even on occasion, use longer sentences to explain a complex idea, but the length of ‘sentence’ that we can comfortably cover in spoken speech is in the two to five ‘chunk’ range. For example, let’s take the sentence "…bank robberies / in Southern California / have dropped thirty five percent / during the first quarter of this year…"

The breaks noted are simple rythmic indications of where pauses in the speech seem to work best. But if we take this idea of two or three chunks of words working best for our spoken speech, this sentence would work fine with the breaks noted, but probably would flow better with the first and second chunks combined thus: "…bank robberies in Southern California / have dropped thirty five percent / during the first quarter of this year…"

Finally, this idea of breaths supporting strings of sound, of words and of ideas should be extended to start thinking of a breath as a unit of measure. One unit of measure supports "X" number of sound chunks and "X" number of ‘ideas’.

We’ll talk more about this idea of breaths being the key underpining of spoken thought in future segments. In the meantime, breath deep(ly)!