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Punctuation Also Belongs In Headlines

Posted on 29th November 2016

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I have noticed a growing tendency for the media to leave out or incorrectly use punctuation. This includes the BBC, which was once the bastion of proper English.

This story from the BBC is an excellent example. The headline of the story states "Gambia elections: Jammeh suspends campaign to mourn Castro". That prompted two questions: why did President Jammeh have a campaign to mourn Fidel Castro, and why did he cancel it? After a moment's reflection, I realised that the journalist meant to write "Gambia elections: Jammeh suspends campaign, to mourn Castro", although it would also have been fine to write "Gambia elections: to mourn Castro, Jammeh suspends campaign".

I have seen more than enough examples of this kind of error in recent news items.

Proper punctuation ensures clarity and ease of reading. Incorrect punctuation adds confusion and can alter or even completely invert the meaning of a phrase. Sometimes, altering word-order and adding more words can achieve the same result as punctuation, but journalism is often about transmitting a message with a few words as possible, most especially in headlines. Sadly, however, the media seems to hold the incompatible and contrary belief that certain kinds of punctuation do not belong in headlines (colons are OK, but commas are not).

Many newspapers, magazines and web-sites will argue that criticism of their punctuation is unfair, because they were quoting someone (a politician or business leader, for example), but sometimes this is no excuse. I have heard speeches and official statements where the correct punctuation was in the original text, and correctly and clearly enunciated by the speaker, but whoever at the newspaper transcribed it did not understand. Such cases are due to bad grammar education in the journalism industry.

To be fair, there are also cases where the speakers do not know how to express themselves. One notable example from recent press coverage is Donald Trump, who speaks as if his mental age is about 9 years. I recently saw a TV interview where the woman interviewer felt it necessary interpret each of his answers into normal and grown-up English.

A few years about I witnessed a telephone conversation between a colleague, Roger, and one of the company's documentation team based in Bangalore, India. The process was that a developer wrote not only code, but also a text file of updates to the documentation (add this paragraph, delete these paragraphs, change XXX to YYY); the documenter then made these changes to a PDF version of the document. Our developers were German, Russian, Hungarian and Romanian, but nevertheless wrote good and grammatically correct English (our documentation was all in English). Roger, a project manager for several projects, was upset that the correct English had been modified by the guy in Bangalore, and again after corrections were submitted by the developer. The documenter argued long and hard that he was improving the language by adding random additional punctuation, whereas in fact the meaning of one sentence had been reversed. Roger and I concluded that the documenter's attitude was that punctuation was like seasoning on food, and that, in general, the more the better. This attitude seems to be widespread in the modern world, but punctuation is not about prettifying language, but about making it clear and unambiguous.