A BBC article today (3 August 2010) highlights the discovery of a small box of bones reputed to be the remains of John the Baptizer, who announced Jesus’ appearance as Messiah and baptized him, and who was later executed by Herod Antipas — see “Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’.”

I’m always intrigued by archaeological discoveries that relate to Biblical accounts. The article includes a video showing the find, and it’s interesting to watch (aside from some silly clerical comments about the find’s significance).

But more than anything, what this article brought to mind was the frequent and peculiar use of quotation marks (or single quotation marks, more accurately) by BBC’s headline writers. Look at the headline again:

Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’

Now in standard written American English, a writer would most often use quotation marks in this way to express irony or skepticism. (For example, “My neighbor plays that ‘music’ too loud,” perhaps referring to rap or heavy metal.)

But in the case of the story about John’s bones, what is the headline writer skeptical about? Maybe the writer is doubtful that these bones were really ‘found’? Perhaps the writer suspects that some Orthodox priest fabricated them?

I’ve noticed other puzzling uses of quotation marks in BBC headlines. Here are some examples:

  • BP ready to plug ‘biggest leak’
  • ‘Ground Zero mosque’ moves closer
  • State ‘can challenge health law’
  • Paraguay star Cabanas ‘recalls little’ of shooting
  • Schumacher ‘almost disqualified’

My best guess would be that this practice has something to do with attribution —  the headline writer is limited by a certain number of characters, but doesn’t want to stick his neck out by actually calling the Cordoba House cultural center “the Ground Zero mosque.” So he has decided to put quotation marks around the phrase to indicate that other people are calling it the Ground Zero mosque but that he doesn’t feel comfortable calling it that.

I’ll bet this practice has been thrashed out after many days of argument at the BBC offices.

After a little investigation I have found that quotation marks used to express irony or skepticism are called “scare quotes.” The gestural version is called “air quotes.” Somehow in all my years as a writer and English student, I have never come across these terms. See the Wikipedia article about “Scare quotes.”

The Wikipedia editors write that, besides denoting irony or skepticism, scare quotes can “serve to distance the writer from the quoted content” and to “convey a neutral attitude on the part of the writer, while distancing the writer from the terminology in question.”

This could be the BBC’s reasoning for the odd way it uses single quotation marks in its headlines. (These might be called “inverted commas” in the hallowed halls of the BBC.)

I also found a useful discussion of the BBC headline conundrum at Wordwizard, a surprisingly active discussion forum dedicated to English words and usage — see “The BBC’s use of quotation marks.” In the discussion, which took place in December 2009, Erik Kowal shares these insights:

This habit of the BBC’s web writers is difficult to understand. I presume that sometimes they are quoting someone without direct attribution, but this does not explain why they do it when the facts described within quotation marks are unquestionable and do not need to be signalled as being opinions or unchecked assertions (which the BBC should not be basing its news stories on in any case).

The practice makes it appear as though the BBC has no confidence in its own reporting, or that it is suggesting that its sources are not to be trusted. Regardless, it is highly irritating and even patronizing.

It also reminds me of the equally annoying habit that some people have of giving capitals For No Real Reason to Certain Words they feel are Particularly Important.

AB — 3 August 2010