Adventures in punctuational pet peeves… (Part I)

~Oh yes, hold on to your seat, this is going to be a 2 Part rant on punctuation. The fun never ends!!~

For quite some time now, I have cringed every time I’ve scanned the BBC headlines. Yes, much of the news is certainly cringe-worthy, but that’s not what’s been setting my teeth on edge. The overabundance of ‘quotation marks’ offsetting ‘information’ in the headlines is driving me bonkers. When not actually used for reporting the direct speech of a someone else, quotation marks have traditionally indicated sarcasm, fallacy, or innuendo. Take the following sentence as an example: Susan ‘cooked’ a really ‘good’ dinner last night. Reading this, I would expect that Susan didn’t cook a thing. The dinner was actually take-out, and it was disgusting.

Brief tirade on the role of punctuation here, including a hastily conceived simile …skip it if you’re bored already….

I admit that despite my desire to see myself as progressive, and accepting of the fact that language changes and evolves, I drag my feet at changes to punctuation use. Punctuation is, and always has been, a way to keep sentences in order. Each little jot, tittle and squiggle performs a specific function (or functions) to make things clear and comprehensible for the reader. To paraphrase Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, if a sentence is a busy city street, punctuation is the traffic signs. Just as city planners don’t go bananas and decide that perhaps a green light could also function as a yield sign, or a red light could serve double-duty as a U-turn signal, neither should punctuation marks be arbitrarily assigned new duties.

Now, back to my point…

What was it? Ah, yes, the BBC. Keeping in mind that quotation marks serve to indicate that the statement isn’t really true, take a look at the following headlines from today:

– US Congress ‘agrees bail-out deal’ (and by ‘agrees on a bail-out deal’ we really mean it was a disagreement over a Happy Meal.)
– Records ‘hurt’ women’s athletics (Just joking. They’ve really helped quite a bit.)
– Finnish massacres ‘may be linked’ (Or, we could just be making it up, and there’s no connection whatsoever.)
– Bush still ‘hopeful’ on Mid-East (and by ‘hopeful’ we really mean he’s curled up in the fetal position rocking back and forth waiting for his term to finish as soon as humanly possible.)
– Modi ‘cleared’ over Gujarat riots (and by ‘cleared’ we mean he’ll probably be spending 5 years in prison.)

Do you see how tossing quotation marks about willy-nilly can cause some major traffic jams on the highway of communication!? Some may argue that the quotation marks in the headlines are there because those words were actually said by someone quoted in the article. No doubt! I have often said ‘hopeful’, ‘cleared’ and ‘hurt’. A set of quotation marks around a single word is utterly useless as an indication of reported speech, and all it does is make me disbelieve the headline.