I should probably start this post by saying that I know my grammar and punctuation aren’t perfect. However, I’m not usually writing about politically and emotionally delicate matters; and I’m not writing on an international news site which is read by millions worldwide.
It bothers me when I see phrases like this on the BBC website:
“I absolutely condemn sexual tourism [and] I condemn paedophilia in which I have never in any way participated, and all the people who accuse me of that type of thing should be ashamed,” Mr Mitterrand said.
It comes from a story about the French Culture Minister, Frederic Mitterrand.
I suppose that the original was a spoken text, and there’s always some doubt about puncutation of speech. However, I’m pretty sure Mr Mitterrand did not say what that sentence claims he said.
For those who don’t see the problem, the lack of a comma after “paedophilia” makes his condemnation only refer to acts in which he didn’t participate: the implication is that as long as he participated, paedophilia is perfectly acceptable.
It’s not only the BBC, of course. The Telegraph was among the sites that mispunctuated the same speech.
Elsewhere in the news, other careless phrasing has bothered me. Serious stories should be reported carefully to avoid making them laughable. Sadly this was not the case here. The second paragraph cries out to be misinterpreted:
Speaking after the inquest into her daughter’s death, Lynn Sutton, surrounded by her family, explained how she felt about the man who brutally killed her.
Of course there’s no real chance that the final ‘her’ refers back to Mrs Sutton, but it seems to me that it should do.
The phrasing was certainly strange enough to make me go back and re-read to check exactly what was going on. Most people reading on the web have neither the time nor the interest to do that.
When I worked on a news website, stories got read by at least two people other than the author before they went live. Everyone on the team read everyone else’s work and attention would be drawn to this type of problem. Clearly, once a newspaper has been ‘put to bed’ there’s little that can be done to correct such things; a public apology may do more harm by drawing attention to something that is best forgotten. But websites can be edited quickly and easily. There’s really no excuse for sloppiness.