Tag Archives: claim quotes

Open quotes

7 Jun

Thanks to all who took part in last month’s quotes quiz. If you did, you may remember it was observed then that the use of some quotations in British headlines remains impossible to categorise. The examples in the questions were chosen because they were clearly more one “type” than any other, but there are many cases where several rationales for the use of quotes blur into each other, and although it seems clear a phrase ought to have them, it is hard to single out why.

Take, for example, a phrase from Britain’s recent political past: “national living wage”:

At the time it emerged, the Tribune had been publicising the work of the Living Wage Foundation, which calculates a voluntary “real-world” minimum wage, higher than the UK statutory rate, which employers can sign up to pay. Then in the 2015 budget, the chancellor, George Osborne, announced a significant increase in the statutory minimum wage, alongside a rebranding of that rate as the “national living wage”.

However, then as now, the increase in the minimum wage fell some way short of the Living Wage as set and publicised for some time under that name by the foundation. (Currently, the campaign estimates it to be £800 a year lower.) The phrase “national living wage” was, as the Tribune has noted tersely, “simply the name given to the statutory national minimum wage rate for over 25s”, and it has been placed within inverted commas ever since.

So what do they signify? Are they neologism quotes? Yes, certainly at the time. Are they scare quotes? Also yes, and predominantly so these days: the phrase may not always appear surrounded by negative rhetoric, but you are still supposed to detect the Tribune’s dissatisfaction with what it regards as political sleight of hand.

The same thing was also true of “levelling up” – the current administration’s professed desire to address regional inequalities. That was placed in quotation marks when it was first mooted, partly because of its unfamiliarity, and partly out of the need – essential for any media organisation – to avoid uncritically parroting the names of government initiatives when they are rhetorically loaded. (As we noted last time, scare quotes are not always a dishonest tactic, and can offer a legitimate distancing from questionable claims or nomenclature.)

Also, there are subtleties even in the apparently straightforward world of direct quotations, as this recent exchange between a Conservative MP and a Channel 4 newscaster demonstrates:

This is a classic debate about whether agreeing to a summation of your position by an interviewer counts as saying what your interlocutor said yourself. You may feel that Newman is right to defend the sentence in its original form, or you may (as I do) agree more with this tweet in the replies:

(Is there something slightly odd about the word “certainly”, which Clarke-Smith did actually say, appearing in a sentence that was otherwise uttered by Newman and assented to by him?) But either way, there are two striking features about Clarke-Smith’s objection: (1) it’s impressive that even he knows the first thing you do is blame a sub-editor; and (2) it’s not the substance of the allegation he is complaining about, but the presence of the quotation marks. It’s not entirely clear why. He is arguably entitled to demand their removal, but if you ran the original sentence exactly as it stands without them, it would be beyond reproach and scarcely less damaging to the moral authority of a legislator.

Is it possible that Clarke-Smith’s objection is based on an understood Fleet Street convention that inverted commas plus attribution in a headline mean that a quotation is genuinely verbatim? At any event, his sensitivity to their presence, and the long debate that goes on in the replies under Newman’s tweet, at least show how highly attuned the British news-consuming public is to the use of quotation marks, in all their complex forms, in headlines.


The Great Quotes Quiz

10 May

Hello and welcome! Can you tell an actual quotation from a paraphrased summary of a third party’s position – just by looking? Can you tell the difference between a newspaper trying to teach you a new word and a newspaper trying to make you fear one? The you’re an ideal contestant for The Great Quotes Quiz, where contestants pit their wits against the subtlest form of headline rhetoric on Fleet Street.

In today’s quiz, you will asked to detect which of the following four journalistic devices are being deployed in a series of headlines:

Actual quotes Quotations taken verbatim from the mouth of a person in the news.

Scare quotes (or sneer quotes) Quote marks placed around a word or phrase to single it out for the reader’s fear or contempt.

Neologism quotes Quote marks placed around an unfamiliar word to signal that although it is new to the reader, it is important and will be explained in due course.

Claim quotes Not actual quotations at all, but quote marks placed around the summary of an assertion made by a third party, about which the newspaper is reserving judgment.

This is not always easy – sometimes it’s impossible to distinguish what kind of headline you are looking at without reading the article. (For example, scare quotes can sometimes perform a secondary function as neologism quotes, inviting the audience to dislike a new word.) But as you work your way through the questions, keep in mind some identification tips from the headline-spotter’s field guide:

Actual quotes

• Significantly more likely to be attributed than unattributed: if quote marks and an attribution are both present in the headline, the likelihood of it being a real quote is high.

• More likely to contain a colourful or controversial turn of phrase, in which case the choice of words may well be the story. Claim quotes, by contrast, are usually written in workaday journalese.

Scare quotes

• Nearly always identifiable from the negative rhetorical loading of other words in the headline: for example, the word in quotes may be described as “bizarre”, “disturbing”, “baffling” and so on.

Neologism quotes

• The word in quotes is either recently coined or completely unfamiliar, but presented neutrally, without the negative rhetoric of the scare quote.

Claim quotes

• Significantly more likely to be unattributed than attributed: in British headline culture, the quotes are shorthand for an attribution.

• More likely to use standard headline language than be unusual or colourful.

So, if everyone’s ready, let’s begin!


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q10 – for double points

First quote
A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Second quote
A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

How did you do? Scroll further down for the answers:

















Q1: A. Actual quote: (NB the online headline has now changed and quote has been demoted to the standfirst.) Note the vividness of the language and the presence of attribution in the headline.

Q2: D. Claim quote: This is a slight hybrid: someone quoted in the piece does actually say the word. But the absence of attribution in the hed, and the bald quotation of the single word, means the primary function of the quote marks is to signal journalistic impartiality about the claim being made.

Q3: D. Claim quote: (Headline shown was for print: link is to the online version.) A classic claim quote that reproduces the first paragraph of the story with the quote marks standing in for the attribution.

Q4: C. Neologism quote: Perhaps familiar enough not to need quotes any more, but in any event the phrase is on its own in the homepage headline’s kicker, without any prejudicial rhetoric to colour your view of it.

Q5: B. Scare quote: Note the fear-inducing tenor of the whole headline, especially the “so-called” preceding the quote.

Q6: A. Actual quote: Slightly trickier, as the attribution in the headline is a little ambiguous, but it is present, and the words quoted are vivid.

Q7: C. Neologism quote: This is, possibly, a borderline scare quote – breadcrumbing is after all described as a “mistake” – but it is more obviously a neologism quote of an unfamiliar term. Note too that the overall tone of the headline is instructional rather than angry.

Q8: B. Scare quote: “Self-styled”. Scare quotes are not always unfair: they can serve the useful purpose of signalling widely held doubts about unlikely claims.

Q9: A. Actual quote: Not just one attribution but two – one of them is almost bound to have said it! This is a classic interview-format headline – name-colon-quote, or quote-colon-name – which are always direct quotes, or should be.

Q10: A. Actual quote and B. Scare quote: The link from the first quote to its attribution is very direct, which gives you confidence that the dietitian did use those exact words; “so-called” is a classic scare-quote tactic.


26 Apr

We haven’t talked about claim quotes for ages, but they are, of course, still thriving in British journalism. (How do other media cultures manage without them?) However, whereas in the past we have seen them pressed into service to do things they were never designed to do, recently they seem to have started appearing around phrases where they aren’t needed at all.

As here, for example, in the Mail.

Of course, all are innocent until proven guilty, so the core allegation of price-fixing will need to be within claim quotes (or be equivalently qualified) for safety. But “is facing extradition”? The story contains extensive quotes from New York court documents demanding his presence in the US to answer charges, so it’s beyond question that he faces extradition, in the traditional journalistic sense of “facing” meaning “possibly subject to”. If you have sight of the documents, you have all the sourcing you need; there’s no need for uncertainty there.

Mail Online always has the longest headlines on Fleet Street, and as a consequence the longest claim quotes. Look at this impressive four-decker:

Certainly more headline-writing caution is required here than in the previous example, but even so it could be shorter. This is a Mail write-off of a story in the Sun, so not only do the direct allegations need to be in quotes but some of the presumptions in the source material do as well. The Sun states there was a security scare: the Mail is merely passing that on without standing it up, so that needs to be inside quotes. The same is true of the claims that the man was an overzealous fan and tried to get under the stage door – even the Sun doesn’t report those things as facts. But there need be, surely, no doubt about the name of the play, the venue, or the size of the cast, which at least takes it down from four decks to three if you end the quote after “door”.

Looking back at the first example, the keen reader will note that there are also quote marks around “pump and dump”, which may seem unnecessary since it is made clear in that clause that these are just claims. But in fact that is not a claim quote but something else – the you-aren’t-expected-to know-this-word quote, otherwise known as the we’ll-explain-this-later quote or the neologism quote, which is deployed to reassure readers that they shouldn’t be discouraged from reading on because of an unfamiliar phrase.

This is another in the sub-editor’s suite of quotation-based headline devices, to go with the claim quote, the scare quote (or sneer quote) and the actual quote. Here are three of the four side by side, again in the Mail:

(“Poison pills”: neologism quote; “final stages”: claim quote; “fluid and fast-moving”: actual quote.)

Once you get a feel for the publication, you can usually distinguish them from the headline context alone, without needing to read the story. Perhaps we should have a multiple choice quiz sometime – identify the type of quote? Watch this space. (BLOGGER PROMISES BIZARRE HEADLINE ‘QUIZ’ – ‘SOMETIME’).

Who is this speaking?

7 Jan

This must be a big story, because the Telegraph has forgotten the claim quotes on the splash again:

And this isn’t the first time it’s happened. That was in 2015, when readers suddenly found themselves being addressed with unfamiliar directness on the day of the general election:

In both cases, a startling imperative headline sits above a straight, completely unexceptionable news story. And although the big type appears to come straight from the pulpit, what follows below makes clear that these are – of course! – just third-party opinions: the words of a “former immigration chief” in the first case and a now-former prime minister in the second. The attribution has unaccountably gone missing from the headline, but it’s right there in the standfirst.

It’s just that, in a respectable publication, one might reasonably hope to find attribution in the headline as well. Perhaps you might not want to waste a line on “…PM urges” or “says expert”, but you could always, for instance, put the entire headline in quotes?

Some newspapers don’t like to have quotation marks in headlines. But the Telegraph isn’t notably one of them, and there are some in the story right next to the migration splash. Did the quote marks get left off by mistake? But this has happened twice now, and both times on supposedly nation-in-crisis subjects that resonate strongly with Telegraph readers.

Nor is this explicitly a front-page editorial; it’s more transgressive than that. When you see “The Sun says…” or “Opinion …” as a strap on page 1, you’re forewarned as to the tone of the headline that follows. Without it, you’re not. Reading a splash, you’re expecting facts and fair dealing, and an opinion headline above a news story catches you off guard. As a rhetorical technique, it has the peculiar effect of breaking the journalistic fourth wall: as though the Telegraph were saying “we normally play the game of attribution and balance, but you know how the world works and so do we, and this is serious.”

It only happens for a moment: then the mask of impartiality is replaced in the standfirst. But the shock of having glimpsed the real face of the newspaper, or seen the limits of journalists’ patience with the niceties of their trade, lingers. This is particularly so in the case of the general election: on the same day as that front page appeared, the newspaper emailed every one of its subscribers openly urging them to vote Conservative.

It’s not that the Telegraph has contrived to put a pundit they agree with on the front page: many papers do that. It’s that they appear to have allowed him to write the headline as well. And yes, not everybody likes claim quotes: but strange things start happening when they disappear.

Flying on holiday

9 Oct

While Ten Minutes Past Deadline is on its short break, your attention is drawn to this fantastic discovery from Fred at HeadsUp – a US newspaper manual from the 1940s that lays down chapter and verse on the use of the flying verb (sorry, “implied subject”), including warning about the risks of their being misread as imperatives, and even has advice to offer about claim quotes. Says well worth a close read. 

Shock treatment

25 Jul

Well, never mind the Paris Accords – thank goodness this has been settled, years in advance. A decisive example of international cooperation. Wait, hang on, what’s this?


We have seen so many examples of claim quotes being used where they shouldn’t be – around claims that only the reporter has made, or around naked editorialising in the display type – that it’s quite a shock to see a headline not have them when it needs them. This Guardian story is not about a fact, it’s about a claim; not about a decision but a prediction. So the headline cannot stand like this, without any attribution at all.

Yes, the source of the assertion eventually appears in the standfirst, but that’s too late: a headline containing a claim must signal the existence of that claim within itself.* This is a highly sensitised part of British newspaper culture: there is a huge difference, to UK readers, between QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP TO DIVORCE and QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP ‘TO DIVORCE’. The former is a categorical assurance, a truth on which the newspaper is staking its reputation. The latter is clearly nothing of the kind: a secondhand claim at best, and one from which the newspaper is distancing itself by punctuation.

It puts one in mind of the hoary “that’s what …” construction beloved of US beat reporters and long studied by Fred at HeadsUp, in which a striking, apparently declarative opening sentence is only fully contextualised in the succeeding paragraph.

There’s no way a man could have blown up an airliner using explosives hidden in his briefs.

That’s what defense attorney Anthony Chambers is claiming in his latest court filing involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with a homemade bomb in his underwear on Dec. 25, 2009.


Monica Conyers doesn’t have a good enough reason to take back her guilty plea and her sudden claim of innocence doesn’t cut it.

That’s what the federal government argued in court documents filed Monday with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Conyers is fighting to have her guilty plea withdrawn.

Which in turn raises a wider question about how long a newspaper should be allowed to keep its readers on the hook before revealing the contested or partial nature of what it’s saying. I would suggest – whether we’re talking about a headline or an opening paragraph – not very long at all.


*Especially because, on many news websites, it is only the headline, without the standfirst, that appears on the homepage.

How to write a claim quote

16 May


A US Congressman has shocked Capitol Hill by claiming to know the identity of crimefighting hero Superman. Hank Bystander (D-NY), whose congressional district covers southern Midvale in Metropolis, told a hearing of the newly formed House committee on media ethics: “It’s no secret in the neighbourhood. We know who Superman is. He’s another damn journalist. His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.”

This is a somebody-said-something story. It’s on the record, from a person of substance, and unquestionably attention-grabbing; but it comes without any supporting evidence. It is, to use the laconic phrase heard on the Tribune newsdesk, “interesting if true”. So the display type will not announce CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN in the newspaper’s own voice: it will attribute the claim to the person who said it, and leave readers to judge for themselves.

How will it do that? There are a couple of options. The first headline option (Type A) is the splashy, read-me, direct-speech quote:


This is beyond reproach: the quote is verbatim, the attribution explicit. The only problem with using a direct quote is that, as here, natural speech doesn’t compress all the news into the very short sentence you need. So you could take the more informative option (Type B) of reported speech plus attribution:


The congressman did not actually utter the phrase “Superman is Daily Planet journalist”, of course, in crisp headlinese. He said: “His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.” But this is reported speech, not direct speech, and the paraphrasing of reported speech is uncontroversial, as long as it accurately reflects the sense of what was said.

And then, in the British headline tradition, there is a third option. In the UK, it is further permissible (almost always for reasons of space) to take that headline, remove the attribution and put the claim, in its paraphrased form, back into quotes to create a claim quote:


It is sometimes thought that claim quote headlines are a cavalier, irresponsible form of Type A headline, in which a direct quote is rewritten to suit the newspaper’s purposes and passed off as another’s words. In fact, what they are – or should be – is this: truncated Type B headlines. The key test of a proper claim quote headline is not that you can find the exact quote somewhere in the story, but that you can reverse-engineer it into reported speech plus attribution using the information in the opening paragraphs.*

How, then, can you tell a claim quote from an actual quote? In British headline culture, the most significant clue is the presence of quote marks but the absence of attribution. Type B headlines, of course, do not need quote marks at all, and even in the UK, readers would be disappointed to see a Type A headline – quote marks and an attribution together – if the quotation was not verbatim from the source. Quotes are the lifeblood of journalism in the UK as they are everywhere else – the Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan once sourly observed that he saw media interviews as a reductive game in which journalists would try to get him to use a certain word: if he avoided saying that word, he won; if it slipped out, he lost. Accordingly, the presence of a direct quote and an attribution together in a headline is usually an indicator of a journalistic “victory” of this type, where the story is that a public figure has used a newsworthy turn of phrase.

However, to British readers, an unattributed quote does not primarily indicate the presence of speech, but the presence of a claim. If the quote happens to be verbatim, then so much the better; but either way its significance is the same. The likeliest purpose of an unattributed quote in a headline is to signal the newspaper’s reservations about its veracity. The presumption is that unattributed quotes in Fleet Street headlines rarely indicate speech; they almost always indicate doubt.

* This is the key measure of viability, but not the only one; HeadsUp has been collecting a number of claim-quote heds that scrape through this test but fail on wider grounds of comprehension or readability. Claim quotes may be widespread in British journalism, but they’re not exempted from the normal rules of syntax. 

You ‘can’t say that’

2 May

Years ago – and this is pre-YouTube, so I’ve been searching in vain for clips – there used to be a segment of a British satirical news quiz that revolved entirely around putting claim quotes in headlines.

I have a distinct memory of Dara O Briain being in charge, so perhaps it was a round on Mock The Week. Anyway, what would happen is that utterly scandalous, defamatory headlines about eminent people would flash up onto the screen, and the contestants would have to insert claim quotes around the most damaging parts to avoid their imaginary newspaper being sued for libel. The more of the headline you could let stand outside the quotes, the more points you got: those who played it safe and put the entire thing in quotation marks were greeted with jeers and cries of “Cowards!” from the chair.

The fact that this idea could ever form part of a national light entertainment programme says a lot about how well understood claim quotes are in the British public imagination. But it also reveals something slightly more worrying: a perception that claim quotes are not just a way to signal a newspaper’s distance from allegations, but a magic device that can be deployed to bamboozle lawyers, avoid editorial responsibility, or quarantine any phrase you’re not quite sure of.

Which is perhaps why we sometimes end up with headlines like this:

The saga of the young people who paid thousands to attend a de luxe event in the Bahamas only to find themselves trapped in ramshackle tents and fed packed lunches has been all the rage on social media, so it’s not surprising the Telegraph has been looking into it. This is their headline, containing not one but two quoted elements, on their main news story last week.

The second quoted element, “mugged, stranded and hungry”, is a classic claim quote – which is to say, not an actual quote, but an allegation in reported speech placed within quotation marks to signal its contested nature. This is the headline convention that British TV audiences are familiar with: the shorthand that stands in for a full attribution, such as “claim customers” or “say unhappy youngsters”, that will be made clear in the text. As you read the story, you do indeed find third parties complaining of all three of those things, although the case for hunger is perhaps more understood than explicit.

The first quoted element, however, is a different matter. You can look up and down the story, and not see a single reference to either the Hunger Games or Rich Kids of Instagram. And to be clear, I don’t just mean that nobody says it verbatim: I mean that nobody says it at all – not in the embedded tweets, not in the quotes, not in the reporter’s own words. What appears to have happened is that the back bench has perceived the resemblance between the news and two evergreen memes – one relating to teenage excess, the other to teenage suffering – and boiled the story down to one pithy phrase in the headline. But if so, why is it in quotes?

You can certainly quibble with this characterisation. Yes, the victims are (probably) rich kids who (probably) use Instagram, but Rich Kids of Instagram (#RKOI), as originally conceived, is something more specific: an ostentatious photography series published by heirs of wealthy families showing themselves driving Ferraris, flying on Learjets or emptying bottles of Krug over their waterproof Rolexes. Many of the Instagram influencers who were reportedly paid to publicise this festival are a different breed: semi-celebrities or actual celebrities with large personal followings rather than unknown trust-fund babies.

Similarly, you may not feel that an amusing photo of a cheese sandwich justifies a comparison with the Hunger Games novels, in which teenagers are forced to fight to the death for food in a post-apocalyptic tournament. It’s a judgment call: you might decide that the popularity and social implications of the story justify a little hyperbole.

But the point is: quote marks aren’t going to help. This isn’t a claim, or even a report of a claim: it’s a commentary. Newspapers are fully at liberty to editorialise in headlines, of course, but they have to do it in their own voice. If you feel the characterisation is witty and apposite, take the quote marks off. If you feel you’re pushing it by making the comparison, don’t make it. This is your idea, your analysis; you’re not entitled to pass it off as somebody else’s.

As this blog has had occasion to say before, claim quotes do not exist for headline writers to signal doubts about their own work, or avoid the consequences of their own words. Claim quotes are for claims: claims made by other people. They’re a peculiarly British convention that other anglophone journalists don’t immediately understand: that’s not entirely surprising, since we don’t always get them right ourselves.

From our own correspondent

26 Jan

This has always seemed a bit odd of the BBC, don’t you think?

Picture 22

A while ago, we caught the Daily Mail using claim quotes for an assertion that only the writer of the story had made. This is almost the opposite: the quoting of a fellow journalist at the same  news organisation as though he were a third party voicing an unproven opinion.

It’s a widespread phenomenon on the BBC website:

Picture 24

Picture 23

Picture 25

A large part of the problem is that, unlike TV news reports with their time-honoured verbal signoffs (“Joshua Rozenberg, at the high court, for BBC News”), most BBC web stories carry no byline. That means there is no implied authorial expertise in the piece itself, so the writers have little choice but to rely on the broadcast arm’s brand-name correspondents. But quoting a journalist that readers recognise does draw attention to the fact that the author of the article is not that journalist, and leaves a puzzle as to whose voice the article is actually speaking in.

In a print environment, the contribution would simply be folded, unattributed, into the body copy and the legal correspondent’s name would be added to the byline. In an anonymous article, that’s not possible. But done like this, the reporter seems reduced to third-party status: just another interviewee like the foreign secretary or the copyright lawyer; just another participant in the debate with a point of view.

The BBC, as a high-profile public body with an intrinsically political source of funding, has a long tradition of having to report on itself. Normally, it does this with fearsome impartiality, even in the most existential of crises, such as the row over the Hutton report. When an official inquiry condemned its reporting on the intelligence dossier that played a central role in the Iraq war, the chairman and director-general both departed within a week. But BBC News, responding to the story, reported on BBC News, the instigator of the incendiary report, as though they had never met.

Carol Malia, who presents the Look North evening news programme, was involved in a protest at the BBC’s studios in Newcastle.

She said: “Any news organisation has to be seen as impartial to be credible and that is what we are fighting for.”

Mike Baker, an education correspondent in London who has worked for the BBC for 24 years, said staff wanted to make a “symbolic” protest.

Any newspaper would have closed ranks and decried injustice in banner headlines. The BBC interviewed colleagues on its own solidarity demonstration as though they were striking factory workers in Pennsylvania.

The problem is, impartiality as acute as that creates echoes even when you don’t want it to. Look at the quote in the story from Clive Coleman, the legal correspondent, in the article about Rihanna. It’s hard to know quite how to take it. It’s a simple statement of fact, but has been attributed to someone other than the author. Does that suggest that it is, in fact, open to doubt? Has it not been checked – or could it not be double-sourced in accordance with the BBC’s rules? (Although if it turns out to be wrong, the corporation could not possibly be hoping to distance itself from someone identified as a BBC correspondent.) Is it true or not?

Or is the identification of Mr Coleman as an employee of the organisation meant as an assurance of quality? In which case, it would be much better to have no attribution at all, and write it into the story as fact, along with his supporting evidence for the statement.

Fairness and balance is the highest of journalistic goals – indeed, for BBC News, funded by every licence-payer in Britain, it’s the only way it can possibly operate. But, as Jay Rosen has pointed out, there is such a thing as too much innocence in journalism.  Putting quotes around facts determined by your own specialist correspondents just gives impartiality a bad name.