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Surrounding individual words with quotation marks in headlines is tricky — and probably ill-advised. A reader sends in these three headlines, wondering whether quotation marks are apt:

‘Popular’ photojournalism student killed in wreck

Newspaper carrier tells his ‘wonderful’ hero story

Rendleman remembered for being ‘unique’

This is a technique that headline writers use to establish that some source within the article, not the reporter or newspaper itself, is making an evaluative statement. It’s not for the paper to determine who is popular and who is not, how wonderful a story is, or whether someone is properly remembered as unique. Presumably all three words within quotation marks are to be found embedded in quotations in the article.

The problem is that putting single words within quotation marks also has the effect of suggesting that they are open to question. That is, after all, what is meant by the two-handed, double-quotes-in-the-air gesture that people make to express skepticism or outright disbelief. So the first of the three headlines could easily be read as intending to say, “Some people say that the student killed in the wreck was popular, but we have our reservations about that.”

That is why at The Sun we discourage the practice. (We also wish that grocery stores would stop using quotation marks around the names of produce for sale, but that is neither here nor there.)

And by the way, no one asked for comments on the headlines apart from whether individual words should be in quotes, but these three are irredeemably banal. What does “popular” add to a story about a student killed in an accident? Would the paper have skipped the story if the student had been a loner? “Wonderful” story? Is there a flatter adjective? Someone was “unique”? Actually, isn’t everyone?



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:46 PM | | Comments (5)


I've always seen this as a way to emphasize sarcasm and often to question someone's sexuality (particularly among my hip 20-something friends). This is how the third example reads to me, and could be offensive --particularly to Mr/Mrs. Rendleman.

Phew. I'm glad I'm not the only one who dislikes the use of quotation marks in most instances.

I read a popular fashion magazine and they love using quotation marks for just about everything. Sometimes they'll have three or even four quotation marks in a 500 word article.

In the first two headlines, the quoted word can be struck, as you suggest. The last headline is slightly trickier, no? You could say "Rendleman remembered," but that seems a bit ... terse. And if he's remembered for something, that has to be noted somehow -- ? I guess it's that old standby: rewrite. :-)

"We also wish that grocery stores would stop using quotation marks around the names of produce for sale, but that is neither here nor there."

Maybe the grocery stores in question use quotation marks to make an ironic comment on their produce. Maybe a sign reading, for example, "Asparagus" means "This trash is supposed to pass for asparagus."

A colleague of mine said she was able to summon the nerve to try to use a fake ID to get into a bar one time because of a sign at the door that read: 'You must be "21" to enter'.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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