Guy Keleny: Errors & Omissions

The case against 'excessive quotation marks'

A headline on Thursday illustrated another kind of redundant quote marks, the knee-jerk attribution. The latest instalment of the Rhys Gray court case was headed "Marlborough boy 'will not return'". The story below reported that Rhys's father had abandoned the attempt to have him reinstated at Marlborough College; it quoted Mr Gray's QC telling the judge that he was no longer seeking an injunction to that effect. It therefore seems as sure as anything can be in this uncertain world that Rhys will not return to Marlborough.

The headline could surely have taken the plunge and reported that as a fact, dropping the quote marks from "will not return". That is especially so since the words "will not return" do not seem to be a quotation anyway; at any rate they do not appear in the story. It is not as uncommon as you might think for quote marks of attribution to be put round words that have actually been composed by the sub-editor who is writing the headline. It is a convenient device, but daft when you think about it.

Generally, quote marks are intended to distance the newspaper from the words, as if to say, "Look, don't blame us if this isn't true; we're only quoting someone else." Very often, of course, such a disclaimer is right and necessary, but sometimes it is just a nervous tic.

What of this, from a news story on Thursday about a Muslim magazine and its editor? "Mrs Joseph, who was awarded an OBE last year for services to 'interfaith dialogue', says it is vital to explain the positive aspects of Islam to non-Muslims." The quotes around "interfaith dialogue" look like shorthand for "something called interfaith dialogue, whatever that may be", as if the reader was expected to find the idea of interfaith dialogue either puzzling or pretentious. I am sure nobody set out to give that impression, belittling as it is to Mrs Joseph and her OBE, but the old knee-jerk quotes have done their dire work again.

Reality check: A feature article on Monday took the new film The Constant Gardener as the point of departure for examining the morality of the big drug companies. We wrote of the film: "Even if its picture of multinational corporations engaged in global conspiracies with corrupt governments seems excessively paranoid, there are real issues to confront." Excessively paranoid? "Excessively anxious" or "excessively indignant" would make sense. But paranoia is a deranged state in which the patient suffers delusions of being persecuted. How paranoid is it all right to be before one's paranoia becomes excessive?

Wrong number (1): "As they decamp to the seaside for their annual conferences," Andrew Grice wrote in his politics column last Saturday, "there is a leadership contest going on in all three major parties." That should be either "leadership contests in all three major parties" or "a leadership contest in each of the three major parties".

Wrong number (2): For Tuesday's motoring section, Tim Luckhurst test rode a new Moto Guzzi bike: "It is lighter, smoother, slimmer and cleaner than any that have gone before." That would better have been either "than any that has gone before" or "than any of those that have gone before".

Wrong number (3): Also on Tuesday, Donald Macintyre reported from Jerusalem: "Both sides yesterday continued to blame the other for sabotaging the public address system." That should be either "each side continued to blame the other" or "both sides continued to blame each other".

Clichés of the week: "With an ability to spot a supermodel at 50 paces," said a fashion article on Thursday, "he has launched the careers of more girls than you can shake a stick at." Well, maybe I can't spot a supermodel at more than 40 paces - or perhaps 45 on a very clear day - but give me a stick and I can jolly well shake it at scores and scores of girls.

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