Consistency, clarity and flair

Next week, this column will migrate from the Perspective page to the Editorial page and the Editor is expected to announce some exciting new changes. In the entirety of its journey of 139 years, this newspaper has remained contemporary yet classic by effecting periodic design changes and taking a lead to embrace new technology without compromising its core values that are intrinsically wedded to the cardinal principles of journalism. While I wait for the Editor to unveil the new plans, I would like to share a sliver of information that would please readers like Duggaraju Srinivasa Rao from Vijayawada, who asked us to explain the rationale behind the differing usage of quotation marks in different pages of this newspaper.

Mr. Srinivasa Rao looked at the Vijayawada edition of The Hindu (January 24, 2017) to point out inconsistencies in the usage of punctuation marks. The front page headline was: CBI ordered to probe ‘abuse of office’ by its former chief. But when the continuation of the same news appeared on page 10, the entire headline was within inverted commas.

Using quotation marks

He then went on to point out headlines that had only a defining word or words within inverted commas and an equal number of headlines that were statements of political leaders and were entirely within quotation marks.

“My understanding is, a quote is used when a statement comes from an individual and inverted commas are used when the words used are different from the language in which the entire story is running,” he wrote. He wanted a clarification about the usage in different ways of quotation marks and inverted commas. Mr. Srinivasa Rao was correct about inconsistencies, though each usage read individually is both grammatically and contextually correct. I would like to assure him that such inadvertent stylistic variations will come to an end soon because the newspaper has just adopted a new, extensive style sheet that addresses some of these issues.

Like most major newspapers, The Hindu too is guided by a style sheet. Unlike the design change which takes place every decade, the style sheet revision cycle is long. The last style book of The Hindu was produced in 1990, a year before the Indian economy was liberalised and the Soviet Union dissolved. It was aimed at ensuring consistency of usage — of spellings, capitalisation, punctuations and abbreviations. The foreword of the 1990 edition read: “The book is not necessarily to settle disputes of an academic character… ‘Style’, as it is used here, does not refer to literary style.”

Our new style sheet

The style sheet that is now being adopted by The Hindu is different from other style sheets adopted by Indian newspapers which draw almost wholly from the ones developed by Western newspapers or agencies. The Editor explained how this new style guide was created organically — out of debates, discussions, and doubts that have surfaced in the newsroom. According to him, the credit for putting this together should go entirely to P. Jacob, Senior Managing Editor, even if the latter prefers to see this as “the outcome of an institutional effort that has involved editors and journalists”. Though this edition of the style sheet is much more exhaustive, the editorial team considers this a work in progress given the fact that the way we use language is dynamic in nature.

Coming back to Mr. Srinivasa Rao’s query, the style sheet has detailed entries for both the use of quotations and quotation marks. It spells out the in-house ground rules in an unambiguous manner. There is a cautionary note that says: “The word ‘quote’ is a verb, and its use as a noun is colloquial. Use ‘quotation’ as the noun.” In this column on quotation marks, I have tried to follow the rules set out in the new style sheet.

The entry first sets the basic premise for the use of quotation: “No change is to be made in a quotation even to bring it in line with house style, in other words, it is against ‘cleaning up’ quotations. A direct quotation eliminates the need to be concerned with issues of editorial style. Readers may have a right to assume that every word between quotation marks is what a speaker or a writer said. ‘Approximate’ quotations can undermine readers’ trust, since they may turn up worded differently elsewhere. Above all, it should be ensured that the intent of the speaker has been preserved.”

The style sheet asks the writers and subeditors to stick to single quotation marks in headlines and second decks but double in captions, and to use single quotation marks when it is a quotation within a quotation. In the last paragraph, ‘cleaning up’ and ‘approximate’ were within double quotation marks, but I have changed it to single quotation marks because they are quotations within a quotation.

The style sheet also functions as an explainer of the trajectory of typography from the early metal typefaces to the present virtual keyboards. For instance, it makes a distinction between “straight quotes” and “curly quotes”. It attributes straight quotes to the typewriter era, which was constrained by physical space and mechanical limitations. It bats for “curly quotes” as they are legible and sharp.

I think the defining aspect of this style sheet is that while it helps to bring about a sense of consistency, it has no rules that hamper experimentation or deny space for creativity.

Our code of editorial values

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 1:05:29 PM |

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