Here’s a handful of headlines, all from today at the BBC News website:

  • Soldier filmed ‘abusing Iraqis’
  • Kennedy ‘rebuffed handshake’
  • Football: Boro ‘tapping-up’ fury
  • Pope says he was ‘misunderstood’
  • ‘Militants’ die in Afghan clash

Note the common thread through all of these stories. No, I’m not suggesting that there’s some kind of link between the Pope, the Liberal Democrats, football corruption and the armed forces (though that would make for one heck of a tale!), but about the glorious abuse of the apostrophe.

I’m not sure then this humble little punctuation mark gained such notoriety, but unfortunately it looks like it’s here to say. What was once upon a time nothing more than a single speech mark (‘Oh really’, he asked), it’s now turned into some kind of green-eyed fiend that means it’s ok to lie, ok not to check facts and ok to misquote, misrepresent and downright tell tall tales.

Or should that be: it’s ‘ok to lie’, ok not to ‘check facts’ and ok to ‘misquote’, ‘misrepresent’ and ‘downright tell tall tales’.

See what I mean?

It’s got nothing to do with good journalism, and everything to do with fear of legislation. Call someone militant and they might sue you for libel (or slander. I can never remember which is which). Wrap the word in inverted commas though, it’s it suddenly becomes a reference to what someone else has said, and you’re ok. Bye bye journalistic integrity. Farewell standing by the truth, adios to being proud of what you believe in. Instead, the media hides behind that single, lonely, little, insignificant mark.

It’s ironic that apostrophe comes from apostrephein, ‘to turn away’ (there they are again). That’s exactly what’s being done here – turning away any possible blame or legislation.

Note to the pedant: An apostrophe isn’t really the same as an inverted comma. Apostrophe strictly refers to the mark used to denote the missing letter in such words as don’t, won’t, etc. An inverted comma is what’s known as a quotation mark in the US. Thanks to computer keyboard though, the two are pretty interchangeable.

Apart from which, I wouldn’t have been able to use such a cool title for this blogpost :)

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