The curse of quotation marks on the BBC website

Headlines on the BBC website are littered with annoying and often unnecessary quotation marks. They are used inconsistently and sometimes misleadingly.

Here are some of the funniest examples:

  1. BBC ‘to launch’ personalised iPlayerquotation marks
  2. Many Britons ‘fear mortgage arrears’
  3. Webber ‘proud’ of achievements in Formula 1
  4. Sochi 2014: British curlers ‘capable’ of medals

Here are six different ways in which the BBC website misuses quotation marks. 

(1) Obviously subjective opinions

Quotation marks aren’t needed where headlines are obviously reporting subjective opinions, as with Many Britons ‘fear mortgage arrears’: the BBC is surely not implying that these Britons are lying. Bionic hand allows patient to ‘feel’ does not need quotation marks unless the BBC is making a philosophical point about the nature of feeling.

With the headline Brendan Rogers has ‘empathy’ with Man United’s David Moyes, the BBC headline-writer needs to consider the alternative: if the quotation marks were removed, would anyone read it as an objective claim? No: it is clearly a subjective statement by Rogers, as is Andy Murray: Ivan Lendl will be ‘very hard’ to replace as my coach. Similarly, there’s no need for quotation marks in Former Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles ‘accepts’ tax ruling, as the story makes clear that Moyles says he takes responsibility for his error and has learned his lesson. The word accepts is so obviously subjective that the headline Former Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles accepts tax ruling would be absolutely fine.

(2) Subjective opinions which should just be treated as facts

The BBC often permits subjective claims without quotation marks, as in Lord Owen: Former SDP leader makes donation to Labour. Unless the BBC has seen the cheque, we only have Lord Owen’s word for this. If it’s OK to avoid quotation marks here – and it is – then it’s OK in most similar situations.

dead men 'stabbed'So, why have the headline Israel ex-PM Ariel Sharon ‘critically ill’ when the first sentence of the story makes clear that it’s his doctors saying this? Do BBC reporters need to run diagnostic tests on the patient? The same applies to Michael Schumacher: Condition of F1 legend ‘not changed’. Why would doctors lie about such things? Would the police lie about Dead men in car ‘had been stabbed’? After all, the BBC is happy with the headline Dozens of former New York police and firemen in 9/11 disability fraud, which the first sentence makes clear is merely a claim by New York authorities.

(3) Pointlessly highlighting unremarkable words

Quotation marks can highlight strange or quotable words, as with Lewis Hamilton ‘drove like an idiot’ in Italian GP qualifying, which is better than (for example) Lewis Hamilton apologises to team for qualifying performance. But it’s amazing how often the BBC highlights completely unremarkable words, as with UK could be Europe’s ‘largest’ economy by 2030.

This is very common in sports stories, as with Wales v Australia: Warren Gatland says Wales ‘confident’ of victory, the bizarre headline Malky Mackay: Cardiff City Manager ‘expected’ to be sacked (is this really different to Malky Mackay: Cardiff City Manager expected to be sacked?!) and, in a particularly ridiculous use of quotation marks, Sochi 2014: British curlers ‘capable’ of medals, where – to the astonishment of all humans beings ever – some sportspeople tell us that if they perform well they could win a medal. Wow!

(4) Where quotation marks misleadingly cast doubt on a story

Adding quotation marks can be a legitimate way of casting doubt on a story, as with China reporter Chen Yongzhou ‘confesses’ on TV. Since ‘confessions are still routinely coerced’, as the story notes, it’s legitimate to hint that this ‘confession’ may not have been entirely sincere.

Elsewhere, though, the BBC does this too readily, as in the headline Yelena Isinbayeva says anti-gay remarks were ‘misunderstood’. Having says in the title removes the need for quotation marks, and intentionally or not, the inverted commas around ‘misunderstood’ now subtly casts scorn on Isinbayeva. The Guardian’s headline is better: Yelena Isinbayeva attempts to clarify comments on Russia’s anti-gay law.

One of the most ridiculous examples is NHS ‘getting better’, says Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Again, having says in the title makes the inverted commas pointless, and the effect – intentional or unintentional – is to cast doubt on Hunt’s claim. We don’t need quotation marks to see that this is a run-of-the-mill claim (by a run-of-the-mill politician).

(5) When quotation marks are misleading or even wrong

Nick Clegg ‘to lead Lib Dems until 2020’ sounds like a prediction. Nick Clegg hopes to lead Lib Dems until 2020 would have been more accurate, as this is Clegg’s own claim about his intentions.

Antarctic rescue: Chinese vessel ‘may now be stuck in ice’ fails to make clear that the Chinese ship had been trying to rescue another ship from the ice but may now have now got stuck in turn. The better title would have been Antarctic rescue ship may now be stuck in ice too.

Sometimes, quotation marks contribute to a misleading title. Consider Man Utd: Stoke boss Mark Hughes feels champions are ‘vulnerable’. Let’s leave aside the fact that ‘feels’ already highlights the subjectivity, and that ‘vulnerable’ is not a quotable term. The real problem is that Mark Hughes merely said that Manchester United were ‘a little bit vulnerable’, and that they won’t win the title if they lose many more games. But the first point is obvious and the second is true by definition. This falls into the category of stories which I call ‘mouth opens and words come out’. Since there is actually nothing in the story worth reporting, the quotation marks in the title help to make it sound as if it might be worth reading.

Sometimes, the quotation marks are simply wrong. The quotation marks are not only utterly pointless in Benedict Cumberbatch: Assange ‘won’t like’ Fifth Estate, but the story reveals that the claim is incorrect: Cumberbatch is merely quoted as saying that ‘I reckon he won’t particularly want to support the film’. Supporting the film isn’t the same as liking it, and nothing in the story involves Cumberbatch talking about the latter.

(6) Inconsistency between the full and short titles

I’ve already noted inconsistencies between headlines which rightly don’t use quotation marks, and similar headlines which use quotation marks unnecessarily. But to really make the point about quotation marks being unnecessary, we can compare cases where the short and long versions of the same story use quotation marks differently.

Berlusconi 'resign'For example, the full title Berlusconi ministerial resignations spark Italy crisis rightly uses no inverted commas, but the short version (used on parts of the website where titles need to be shorter) does use quotation marks, bizarrely: Berlusconi ministers ‘resign posts’. Nothing in the full story indicates that this is an uncorroborated claim; I see no need for inverted commas anywhere.

'narrow escape'

The same applies to Ichthyosaur fossil at Charmouth narrowly misses storm destruction, where the short title involves completely pointless quotation marks: ‘Narrow escape’ from storm for ichthyosaur skeleton.

How 'exciting'

How ‘exciting’

Or Winter Olympics 2014: Jenny Jones excited by slopestyle debut, where the short title is Snowboarder Jones ‘excited’ by Games. Wow, what a catchy headline. A sportperson who is excited by sport. Hold the front page!

… And a few final thoughts …

If I were analysing this rigorously, I’d do the following things:

(a) compare the use of quotation marks in BBC stories over time, especially to see if this is a trend exacerbated by the redesigned website;

(b) compare BBC stories to equivalent ones elsewhere, especially to see if other outlets regularly find appropriate ways of avoiding quotation marks in headlines of similar length;

(c) find out from the BBC if they have guidelines on the use of quotation marks in stories, and in particular, if they have been criticised in the past for making subjective claims sound too much like facts by not using quotation marks;

(d) find out from the BBC if stories with quotation marks get more hits.

But I’m not analysing this rigorously, merely trying to get this bee out of my bonnet and into yours.

Finally, I’m sorry if this blog post makes me sound more critical of the BBC than I am. I love the website, and use it many times a day; but I do think that quotation marks are being used too much, misleadingly, and inconsistently.

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8 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  April 20, 2014

    Great article. The ‘ridiculous’ use of quotations on the BBC webside has been ‘bugging’ me for some time. Glad I’m not the only one.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

     /  November 19, 2014

    This has been annoying me for some time now, thanks for writing this. I am, rather worryingly, a bit too glad and excited at having discovered that I am not the only one! Their use of quotation marks is often completely unnecessary, but it has left me with the thought that if I am such a grumpy old man at 35, then Christ knows what I’m going to be like at 55. 🙂

    Reply
  3. I didn’t notice before today, but http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33846493 tells me MH370: Malaysia sends experts to examine Maldives ‘debris’, as if haha, we all know it’s not really debris, don’t we. Apart from that their journalistic standards are crap and they seem unable to put more than one sentence into a paragraph, like it’s all in Simple English for modern mentally differently-abled people.

    Reply
    • I would not describe the BBC’s journalistic standards as “crap”, and one-sentence paragraphs are more readable online. It’s amazing how well most BBC stories are written: only rarely does one need to read sentences twice to work out what they mean.

      Reply
  4. Simon Heffer

     /  June 7, 2016

    Finally had to ‘aaaaarrrrrrggggggh’ out loud today having seen 50% of stories on the news page with unnecessary quote marks. Glad somebody else has noticed.

    Reply
  5. This one is wrong and downright offensive to the people who died:

    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39062521

    Lahore bomb blast ‘kills six’

    Is the BBS implying that these people didn’t die or weren’t killed?

    Reply
  6. John

     /  June 15, 2017

    Thank god someone else noticed this. It drives me crazy.

    Reply

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