News Headlines and Punctuation

I would love it if someone could explain British punctuation to me; emails, which I have written about before in noting that they contain hardly any punctuation where I expect there to be some:

Dear Martha

Happy New Year

(content of the note) blah blah blah

Best wishes


My response would look likely look more like this:

Dear Roger,

Happy New Year to you too!

(content of the response) blah blah blah.

Best wishes,


Although it’s perhaps not a fair comparison, as my American email would more likely read

Roger–Happy new year! blah, blah, blah, Best regards, Martha

thus saving space in cyberspace and doing away with letter-style formality for a quick note.

In contrast to emails, British headlines seem to me to have waaaaaay too much punctuation. Example headlines from the BBC today:

  • Sea rescue beacons ‘a priority’
  • China ‘to act over jail deaths’
  • Economy ‘no longer in free fall’
  • Cancer brake ‘could halt disease’
  • Teachers ‘script GCSE oral exams’
  • ‘Green Nobel’ for forest champion

The only top stories headline on Yahoo! news that used quotes was referring to a movie, otherwise the headlines were quote-free:

  • Efron turns ’17 Again’ into No. 1 hit with $24M
  • Police plan to charge driver in fatal accident
  • Diabetes? Some beat it, but are they cured?
  • US boycotting, Iran starring, at UN racism meeting
  • Exxon Mobil overtakes Wal-Mart to top Fortune 500
  • Chavez’s gift to Obama swiftly becomes best-seller
  • Yao has 24 points, Rockets beat Blazers 108-81

Now I buy books in both countries and have learned to read them without noticing the single-versus-double quote anomaly, but this one has me perplexed. Lots of quotes in headlines, no punctuation in emails… anyone???

14 responses to “News Headlines and Punctuation

  1. The convention is that if the news agency is using someone else’s words in the headline, then those words are put between quotes. If the agency is not using this convention correctly, and is putting its own words between quote marks, then I would suggest that you asked *them* about it, not us.

    With regard to punctuation in emails I am unable to comment, since my British friends tend to punctuate perfectly while my American ones often seem not to bother. (This goes for spelling, too! Perhaps Americans are more keen to overthrow the ‘tyrrany’ of orthography? 😉 )

  2. The quotes in headlines are because the journalist wants to make it clear that he is quoting someone. I’ve always taken that in two ways. Either they want to distance themselves slightly from the quote – it’s as if they’re saying “someone said this, but read my article and judge for yourself if it’s true”. Or they want to set out their credentials – “this is a serious article, because I’ve done my research, talked to people, and I’m quoting them”. But maybe I’m reading far too much into them. It’s probably just a convention.

    Punctuation in emails? I think we’re in free fall here. Who is setting the rules? Punctuation conventions take years or decades to solidify, and email just hasn’t been around long enough for that to have happened.

    I always have to swallow hard when my kids come home with punctuation homework. Some of the rules they are being taught seem very old-fashioned to me, eg putting a period after Mr or Mrs in an address, indenting an address at the head of a business letter, or on the envelope. I did check with the teacher once, and she quoted to me which set of rules they teach – I can’t remember which one it was. Would you put a period after Mr/Mrs, or indent an address?

    Otherwise I just go with the flow. My guess is that we’re the last generation that will get upset about punctuation conventions. My kids will no doubt have to relearn certain rules when they return to school in the UK, but by the time they’re in the working world, I think it will have all loosened up a bit, and people will be taking the attitude “so long as it makes sense and I understand it, I don’t mind what kind of punctuation you use”. And we Brits will have had to get used to a lot of American spelling and punctuation, just because that will become the worldwide standard. Just a guess. Who knows?

  3. > putting a period after Mr or Mrs

    There appears to be a difference between US and UK usage here. The UK usage I was taught was not to put a dot after an abbreviation if it ends in the same letter as it would have done if unabbreviated; thus: Mr, Mrs, Dr, etc, but Prof. , The Rev. and so forth.

    > And we Brits will have had to get used to a lot of American spelling and punctuation, just because that will become the worldwide standard.

    I suspect not. Commonwealth English is used by considerably more people in the world than American English. It is also the standard used by the major international organizations like the UN, and NATO. Even the International Aluminium Institute (judging by how it chooses to spell its name) uses Commonwealth English.

  4. I expect the International Aluminium Institute, along with the other organisations you mention, will have less impact on everyday usage than the vast number of people writing and reading stuff on the internet. Who knows, though?

    I was taught to put a dot after all abbreviated titles, whatever their last letter, but I don’t do that now. I think there comes a point where you have to go with common usage, whatever your primary school teachers taught you.

  5. I was taught the same as Howard, a dot only if the last letter is altered. Although that was only once I got to grad school, as a youngster I put a dot after all abbreviations. But funny the “dotless” version is far more common here than in the correspondence I get from the states, which mostly still uses it. It’s all a bit random and I guess due to peoples’ educations and not so much the US/UK thing for this.

    The headlines, that’s another story. Definitely it seems that the UK headlines are always quoting something and the US ones are not. That’s an interesting one but might it relate to the issue of a few days ago of the US newspaper remit being the delivery of objective news instead of opinion?

  6. Of course, about the only time I ever used “Mr.” or “Mr” and “Mrs.” or “Mrs” in America was when writing out wedding invitations… “Dr.” or “Dr” and “Prof.” and “Rev.” (no “The” though!) but otherwise titles were not something used in much of my correspondence. I was a bit stunned when I got here and saw “Mrs” in the signature files of the PAs at work.

  7. > “Rev.” (no “The” though!)

    Yes indeed — this is another difference in US and British usages. In the UK you’d address an envelope to “The Rev.” But as the “Who’s Who: Titles and Forms of Address” says, “The style Rev. Mr Smith was once common in England but its use is now confined to North America, where it is correct.”

  8. > will have less impact on everyday usage than the vast number of people writing and reading stuff on the internet

    Yes, but the US’s proportion of the Internet use in comparison with the rest of the world is declining, surely, as the populations of more and more countries are becoming “connected”. We have to remember that India has a population four times that of the States, and English in its Commonwealth style is one of its official language. British English is also the standard used by the EU.

  9. Howard,

    I’m American, and all my British friends leave out commas in sentences, where they very plainly should go. They think it odd that I don’t leave out the commas, too!

    Expat 21

  10. Iota,

    It was only recently I learned that the British do not put periods after abbreviations such as Mr. or Mrs. My daughter (in North Africa) came home with an English book that had been printed in Britain. I called up my British friend who represents a well-known book publisher and told her that this book at my daughter’s school had several misprints! We sat down to look at it together, and found that the conventions in Britain and America are different. We wondered how this could be.

    I just happen to have a full library of several thousand volumes in my home, including some older British books, and a few newer British books. We pulled some of them off the shelves and examined them. In books prior to approximately 1955-1960, the periods WERE present in all the British books after abbreviations such as Mr. and Mrs. But after that time, they seem to have disappeared. By British friends went to school in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and were taught in school without those periods.

    So, you might say that the Americans are actually still using the older (more correct?) form. I thought this was an interesting issue when we discovered it.

    I’ve noticed in a few of Howard’s posts, some of the usages he tends to criticize Americans for are actually far OLDER usages of English that were transported from the England of former times, while the usage evolved and changed in England. We kept the older forms. Another example of Americans using the older form is that we still use the subjunctive tense (which has dropped out of British English). We also correctly use “gotten,” (another older form), whereas the British now say “got.”

    Expat 21

  11. > Another example of Americans using the older form is that we still use the subjunctive tense (which has dropped out of British English).

    This is interesting, Expat, could you give us an example of this?

  12. > some of the usages he tends to criticize Americans for are actually far OLDER usages of English that were transported from the England of former times

    Actually, no. I’m not aware of any American usages which are older than current British usages that I have in fact criticized. I’ve never criticized ‘gotten’, for example, or ‘fall’ for autumn.

    In fact I don’t think I have *criticized* any American usage at all! All I have done is to point out the difference between the dialects, and when Americans have been inclined to be sniffy about the British usage, I have attempted to prove that there is good historical and documentary evidence for the BrE usage. I have never said that the American usage is wrong, merely that the British usage *in those circumstances* is older, and therefore should not be derogated.

    I’m perfectly happy for Americans to adhere to the standards of their dialect, but I expect the same license in return for the Brits for theirs.

    But it could be that I am misremembering: if so, please do give examples!

  13. Dear Howard,

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that you yourself were criticizing older American usages. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. This criticism has come from my own British friends! (This is how I came to find out about some of these things.)

    Regarding Brits criticising each other, to clarify, I have heard British many times sitting around in “friendly” banter, such as after work, trading “barbs” and witticisms with each other. The way it’s done IS shocking to American ears… us, it sounds as though they are all being terribly rude to each other! When I’ve discussed it privately with my British friends, they tell me that’s normal….(this makes me wonder how American conversations must sound to the British…..)

    I’m not a grammar expert, Howard, but in regards to your asking for an example of the subjunctive tense, I believe this would do:

    British: If I was going home after work….
    American: If I were going home after work…

    British: If he was doing it on purpose, he would be in trouble.
    American: If he were doing it on purpose, he would be in trouble.

    Expat 21

  14. Thank you for the example, Expat.

    In fact I, a Brit, would say “If I were going home after work…”, so I don’t think the subjunctive is an America v. British thing.

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