How One Tiny Punctuation Choice Created a Disaster of Misunderstanding

On Monday, The Guardian published an opinion piece titled:

That’s big news. The problem is … President Biden did not say that it’s time to pack the court.

You’d be forgiven for interpreting it that way, since colons after names are regularly used for attribution of a quotation.

But that’s not what was intended here.

Colons after names also sometimes happen in salutations. If you’re blanking on what a salutation is, it’s the part at the beginning of a letter that says something like “Dear [recipient].”

Salutations are usually followed by a comma:

But sometimes they are followed by a colon:

And sometimes they don’t have the “Dear” or any words before the name of the person you’re addressing:

See where this is going?

The writer of this opinion piece, Lawrence Douglas, is addressing President Biden, saying it’s time to pack the court. But by using a colon and no other words in this headline “salutation,” it now sounds like President Biden has said those words.

On Monday, the piece was one of the most widely read on The Guardian. On Twitter, several sharers of the story were visibly misinformed. And on Reddit, the article garnered 15k upvotes and several user “awards” — with the headline in static text accompanying the post.

The top comment, with 2k upvotes: “Feels like the headline is trying to deliberately mislead people into thinking Biden said that.”

I reached out to a few Guardian Opinion editors I found on Twitter and pointed out this unfortunate interpretation. One replied, thanking me for bringing it to their attention and confirming that the headline had been changed to correct the misunderstanding.

Now it reads:

Colon cleansed. (Sorry.)

This was, no doubt, an honest mistake — and, minus the impact, a very minor one. It’s not even a mistake, per se. It’s an unanticipated interpretation that in this case is very different from the intended meaning.

I’ve written many headlines myself, and it’s surprisingly easy to miss how a headline might sound to a reader who comes to it fresh, especially after you’ve been playing with the wording for a while. And, in my humble opinion, The Guardian is usually impeccably edited.

But unfortunately, now a not-insignificant portion of the population thinks that either Biden called for court-packing or The Guardian is deliberately trying to mislead its readers.

One tiny punctuation choice, two completely different meanings, two very unfortunate consequences.