Grammar Blunders and Journalistic Discourtesy

Draft design for the new £5 banknote

Nearly every week some journalist calls me, always on a tight schedule, to get a quote for some story about language or grammar. I help whenever I can, despite knowing that most likely they will slightly misrepresent me, and will not alert me when or if the story appears. Last week I helped Katie Morley of The Telegraph with a story about a supposed grammar error on a banknote. In the story that appeared, which ignored my advice, two linguistic errors of hers appeared in a quote allegedly from me, making me look illiterate.

The story claimed that “a major grammar blunder” appeared on the new plastic £5 sterling banknote. The published draft version of the design had a picture of Sir Winston Churchill, and below it a famous wartime saying of his enclosed in double quotation marks but without sentence-final punctuation:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”

The design was later revised slightly, and the note went into production without the quotation marks, thus:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat

I find one fault with this: I’d prefer an Oxford comma after “tears” (the line as Fred Shapiro quotes it in The Yale Book of Quotations has that comma). But this is a minor point, because the Oxford comma is famously optional. There are no actual errors.

Morley, though, had linguistically uninformed sources telling her otherwise. She asked me two questions: (1): Isn’t it a grammar mistake to omit the sentence-final period? And (2): Isn’t it a grammar mistake to omit the quotation marks?

I had clear and decisive negative answers for her on both points. First, I pointed out that although a period (or other sentence-ending mark) is normally required at the end of a declarative sentence in running text, this is not necessarily the case elsewhere, as in headlines, photo captions, T-shirt mottos, tombstone inscriptions, advertisement slogans, or items in bulleted lists.

A very clear example, I observed, is provided by article-subtitle policy in The Economist. Subtitles never end with periods. Even in a subtitle composed of two sentences, only the first has a period (because it’s part of a text); the last one does not (because it ends the whole text, which is a subtitle, and subtitles don’t have final periods). Thus the first editorial in the April 22 issue, headed “Game Change,” has this subtitle:

An election gives Theresa May the hope of a far larger majority. It also offers the chance of a better Brexit

And the fourth, headed “Whack-a-Passenger,” has this one:

Americans are treated abysmally by their airlines. They should look to Europe for lessons

Advertising slogans with no sentence-final punctuation can be illustrated from the same source. Page 2 of the April 22 Economist has a full-page advertisement containing the sentence “Discover the potential” (no period); and Page 41 has an ad making the punctuationless assertion “2 billion potential customers are waiting for you online” (again, no period). These are not errors; the slogans are not embedded in connected prose. An isolated quotation on a banknote could be typeset under a similar style policy.

Morley’s second point was similarly easy to answer. Quotation marks serve a purpose when they separate quoted speech from surrounding text. But around an isolated famous remark inscribed below a portrait of the utterer, they serve no purpose; they’re mere typographical clutter. It isn’t a grammar error to eschew them.

I took a few minutes of my time to explain all this very clearly over the phone. But the next morning I wished we had worked by email, because on the paper’s website I was quoted thus:

“The general principle that a full stop is required applies to connected prose. Quote marks would be serving no purpose on the note as its obvious that the quote belongs to the Great Sir Winston.”

Morley had omitted the apostrophe of “it’s obvious” and incorrectly capitalized the adjective “great.” The mostly conservative (indeed, mostly Conservative) readers of The Telegraph would doubtless think I had sent her an illiterate email. They would be itching to find fault anyway, because they love finding “grammar errors,” and I was denying them that pleasure. Morley was supplying them with live ammunition by injecting errors into my words.

I sent her an angry email saying she had damaged my reputation and I was preparing to lawyer up. She never answered (standard journalist rudeness), but at some time between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. the story on the website (see it here) was silently corrected. I’m glad it was. But I won’t be so ready to take Katie Morley’s phone call next time a “grammar blunder” story comes up.

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