Q is for Quote marks

21 07 2010

Enjoying the relative cool of Central Park last week, I discovered that the bench that I was sitting on bore a message:

Wishing no disrespect to the deceased, I was intrigued, nevertheless, by the quote marks around abruptly. How was I meant to interpret them? What extra nuance of meaning did the author of this tribute intend? What, in short, is the pragmatic force of “abruptly” as opposed to abruptly?

Quote marks, after all, are not innocent bystanders in the processes of text creation and interpretation. Traditionally, of course, they separated quoted matter from the writer’s own words. Hence, they’re called (variously) quote marks, quotation marks, speech marks and so on. But they’ve come to fulful a number of other functions too. Look at these examples of headlines, all taken from the BBC News website on a single day, along with the first line of the accompanying report:

Pakistan’s ISI ‘supports’ Taliban

Pakistan’s intelligence service has direct links with the Taliban in Afghanistan, a report claims, but Pakistan denies it.

Slovak opposition ‘wins’ election

A centre-right coalition wins a majority in Slovakia, but the prime minister says he will still try to form a new government.

‘Israeli spy’ arrested in Poland

Polish authorities have arrested a suspected Israeli agent in connection with the murder of a Hamas operative in Dubai in January.

Japan PM warns of debt ‘collapse’

Japan is at “risk of collapse” under its huge debt mountain, the country’s new prime minister has said.

‘Threat’ to porn site visitors

Visitors to porn sites are at serious risk of being exploited by cyber criminals, a study has suggested.

Adobe fixes ‘critical’ Flash flaw

Adobe has fixed a “critical” security flaw that had the potential to allow hackers to take control of affected computer systems.

‘Bullying’ link to child suicides

As many as 44% of suicides among 10-14 year olds between 2000-2008 may be bullying-related, a charity suggests.

Only one of these seems to flag  direct speech quotes – the one about the Japanese debt collapse. It seems that the others serve to distance the writer (and website sponsor) from some kind of assertion: they act as a form of hedging or mitigation. Note how often they collocate with verbs like claim, deny, suggest, suspect, as well as with modals like may. The doubt implied by quote marks is why they are popularly known as  ‘scare quotes’. In some cases they even suggest that the claim is so disputed as to be false, as in the example: Slovak opposition ‘wins’ election. Note also how many of the hedged items have negative connoations: spy, collapse, threat, bullying, etc. It’s as if the BBC doesn’t want to be too closely associated with reporting bad news.

But just as interesting as the cases where quote marks are used, are the cases where they are not – and I wonder if there isn’t a covert political agenda in operation here. For example (from the same webpage on the same day):

Burma denies nuclear programme

The Burmese government has denied recent reports that it is developing a nuclear weapons programme.

Cuba frees paraplegic dissident

The Cuban government has freed a jailed dissident and moved six others to jails closer to their homes.

Clash reports on Iran anniversary

Sporadic demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities have been reported on the anniversary of the disputed presidential election.

What would the effect have been, had nuclear programme, dissident, and clash been in quotes?  Given their absence, can we  infer that the BBC feels less need to hedge when reporting on some countries than on others? Is not using quote marks a veiled form of criticism? To me, all this suggests that the way quote marks are used (or not used) might be a useful focus for raising awareness about the ideological sub-text of texts – does anyone know of material that does this?

But none of this solves the mystery of the ‘true New York lady’ – neither her life nor her manner of leaving it!