Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Those dangerous quote marks

We use quotation marks to mean a lot of things -- to show that someone's speaking, to introduce an unknown word, to draw attention to a pun and to cast doubt on the words' sincerity, just to name a few.

And reader studies show that people often have a hard time figuring out which use headline writers are going for.

The Boston Globe has a prime example of the problems that can crop up (via Regret the Error).

Here's the headline: Passengers aboard plane salute fallen 'hero'

And here's the follow-up note from the editor: A headline in yesterday's City & Region section on a story about the return to Logan Airport of the body of an American soldier who died of wounds suffered in Iraq used quotation marks around the word hero. The headline should have made clear that quotation marks were being used because the pilot of the plane had announced to passengers that a hero was on board. Without that context, the headline appeared to call into question the soldier's heroism.

This problems are especially grievous in headlines, but the same caution should be applied to the text of stories, too.

You should almost always avoid quote marks around one word. This includes sentences such as:
The indictment accuses him of "knowingly" breaking the rules.
Is that quote from the indictment? Or is it implying that there's some catch with knowingly?

Another example:
Reid also tells FHM that Playboy has offered "millions" for her to do a nude spread.
Take out the quote marks. They add nothing but may distract a lot.

Related posts:
>Buttering up for an interview
>The danger of single-word quotes


At 4:29 PM, September 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BBC News headlines use this constantly and it drives me crazy -- a sampling from today:

'Suicide bomber' strikes in Kabul
Nigeria governor 'laundered' cash
Pakistan 'extremist leader' held
Arctic ice 'disappearing fast'

I realize they're just trying to avoid the appearance of editorializing in the heads, but it seems like overkill to me.


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