The Times’ curious use of single quotation marks in headlines

times falconer

Women ‘are not tough enough to lead Labour’

Such was the headline in the Times last Friday, above an article by Lord Falconer. You would be forgiven for tinking that Lord Falconer actually said that women “are not tough enough to lead Labour”. But what he actually wrote was:

Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper are both very talented politicians. Both have a big future in our party. But neither Yvette nor Liz can steer the Labour party through the challenging few years ahead of us when we need a leader who can reach out to all wings of our party and provide unity

In the article, Lord Falconer didn’t raise the issue of anyone’s gender or whether anyone is “tough enough”.

This example brought back memories of Jeremy Browne’s interview with the Times in April 2014 which was given the front page headline:

LibDems ‘are pointless’

…except that Jeremy Browne didn’t say that the LibDems are pointless. He said a lot of discursive stuff such as this:
the times browne pointless

A lot of people who might quite like the Lib Dems they see in their locality have a difficulty getting what the Lib Dems stand for and why they are relevant…Every political party and every politician has to be able to answer the question, ‘If you didn’t exist why would it be necessary to invent you?’ I’m not sure it would be necessary to invent an ill-defined moderating centrist party that believed that its primary purpose was to dilute the policies of other political parties, whereas I do think it would be necessary to invent a bold, ambitious liberal party.

And that was summarised as “Lib Dems ‘are pointless'”, the single inverted commas being added, presumably, to help copies of that day’s Times fly off the shelves of the newsagents, as did, presumably, the use of the same technique on the day they carried Lord Falconer’s piece.

What is going here? Is the Times alone amongst newspapers in using single inverted commas to use spin and gloss to give a highly contentious paraphrase of what they would like someone to have said, when they didn’t say it?

I remember an old newspaper editor saying to me that double inverted commas should only be used to quote someone’s precise, recorded words. And that single inverted commas should be used to summarise (accurately) what someone said.

I also remember Henry Kelly, who worked on The Irish Times, saying that single inverted commas are used when journalists don’t know what the heck is going on.

I wrote to the Times, complaining about the Browne incident but received no reply.

I invested in the 1999 (more recent versions seemed rather expensive) Times “Guide to English style and usage” which merely said:

quotation marks (inverted commas); remember, single quotes in headlines, straps and display panels; double quotes in captions and keydecks.

It also says:

quotes direct quotes should be corrected only to remove the solecisms and other errors which occur in speech but look silly in print. Always take care that quotes are correctly attributed…

It would seem that the Times have invented a new use for single inverted commas which is certainly not in their 1999 style and usage guide, and which I haven’t seen other publications using – specifically to lay another, more controversial, meaning onto what people have actually said.

It seems a rather reprehensible trend.

At the very least, people need to be very careful when dabbling with the Times.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • It looks like single quotation marks mean….’What we think he/she should have said’…

  • Michael Berridge 29th Jul '15 - 3:16pm

    So the principle of mixing single and double inverted commas is well established, it’s just the way the Times interprets the use of single quotes “to summarise (accurately) what someone said” that is contentious. For us as translators, that is useful information. For us as Lib Dems, it confirms that the Times (like the Telegraph) is not altogether the journal of record that we would like it to be.

  • Phil Beesley 29th Jul '15 - 3:53pm

    There is a more modern reason to use single quotation marks: we quote others more frequently than the Times guide of 1999 considered.

    When Paul Walters quoted Lord Falconer et al, the contributors did not quote. As readers, we did not have to unravel multiple single and and double quotations.

    So if I wibble that Falconer says “Women ‘are not tough enough to lead Labour’”, readers have to escape one set of double quotation marks and one set of single marks to get to the point. (And, no, I didn’t understand Falconer’s arguments but it is worth using brackets — perhaps hyphens — to show how we use punctuation [confusingly] in debate.)

  • Richard Underhill 29th Jul '15 - 6:14pm

    Jim Callaghan did not say “Crisis? what crisis?” when he returned from a conference with a suntan.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Jul '15 - 6:15pm

    This is mainly about the Labour leadership election, best left alone.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Jul '15 - 11:12pm

    Interesting article. I moaned about an FT headline the other day because I had to read it about five times before I understood it. It was all due to a non-existent apostrophe that should have been there.

    It isn’t too bad for natives, but non natives can struggle greatly when the grammar doesn’t make sense and it can make them more frustrated with the language.

    I’ve not got perfect grammar, but it is always something good to read about. Sometimes I break rules on purpose too.

  • Conor McGovern 30th Jul '15 - 1:57am

    The fact that it took Jeremy Browne to understand the situation before Clegg could shows the scale of the situation we were in. It also shows that we’re a ‘broad church’ party (inverted commas used correctly this time!) – we need to make sure that during the return to local and national government we respect every view in the party. The best way is to make us more democratic as a membership, right?

  • It seems pretty obvious to me that when the Times uses quotes in a headline they are quoting their Editor (or whoever writes the headlines), not the author of the article… Single vs double quotes is just a style thing..

    Just a pity they don’t attribute the quote properly! But really what do we expect? Truth from the Murdoch Press???

  • Richard Underhill 30th Jul '15 - 12:58pm

    The size of the TUC has halved from its peak under Len Murray.
    Many of the current members are in the public sector, which employs a lot of women,
    Many are in retail, which employs a lot of women.
    If the TUCcan be led by a woman why not the party they founded?

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