The great Irish playwright, critic, polemicist, political activist, and Nobel Prize winner, George Bernard Shaw, had little time for the rules of grammar, and certainly had no love for the apostrophe. But some of us beg to differ, and last week, a High Court judge agreed that GBS was wrong. It turns out that the humble apostrophe is crucially important when establishing the meaning of an article.
The background to the case is complicated, but briefly, a charity based in Belfast offers archive research to the legal profession, and advocacy and training to victims and survivors of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Naturally, it has a number of charitable Trustees. One of the organisation’s Trustees and Directors was formerly a member of the IRA and, in the words of the judge, “has admitted planting bombs, of which he is unrepentant” (but to be clear, he has renounced violence and is now part of the peace process).
Readers will not need to be reminded that journalist Lyra McKee was murdered by The New IRA in April 2019. One of Belfast’s daily news publishers ascertained that the charity would be receiving funding as a result of the posthumous publication of a book that Lyra had written.
This resulted in print and online articles being published under the headlines “McKee book to fund ex-bomber’s group” and “Ex-IRA bomber’s group to get cash from Lyra McKee’s book” respectively.
The charity’s Trustees were not happy, and apart from the ex-bomber himself, sued the publisher for libel (and on other grounds). In the libel claim, they asserted that the articles bore 13 defamatory meanings, including that they had formerly been bombers and members of the IRA; they supported and/or condoned bombings; were actively involved in the promotion of the interests of violent Irish nationalism/republicanism; and so on.
Not surprisingly, the publisher disagreed, and argued that the articles were not defamatory of them because they were not capable of bearing the claimed meanings.
Accordingly, the publisher (which I represented) applied to the High Court for a determination of meaning. Mr. Justice Schofield heard the application and delivered his judgment last week.
In deciding the meanings of the articles, the judge applied the familiar principles of law concerning the natural and ordinary meaning of words (about which much has been written).
However, Mr. Justice Schofield then went on to say this:
I accept the submission on the part of the Defendants’ that, in assessing meanings from the perspective of the hypothetical reasonable reader, some knowledge of the basic rules of grammar – such as the correct use and placement of an apostrophe – must be assumed.
The words complained of are not to be read as referring to an “ex-bombers’ group”, as opposed to (the words actually used in the articles) an “ex-bomber’s group.” There was only one bomber referred to, rather than more than one. This is evident from the placement of the apostrophe. Punctuation matters. Otherwise, claims could be founded (as here) on meanings which are demonstrably not the ordinary and natural (including the objectively grammatically correct) meaning of the words used.
In other words, had the sub who wrote the headline mis-placed the apostrophe, or not used one at all, the meaning of the headlines might well have been different. But by knowing his/her grammar and using the apostrophe properly, the publisher was able to show to the satisfaction of the judge that the headline and accompanying articles were not defamatory of the Plaintiffs. As a result, the libel claim has been struck out.
So what lessons should journalists take from this judgment?
Well, as it has now been confirmed that in law, “punctuation matters” and “the hypothetical reasonable reader, [has] some knowledge of the basic rules of grammar – such as the correct use and placement of an apostrophe”, it surely follows that to ensure clarity of meaning of an article, journalists must have the same knowledge of the basic rules of grammar as the hypothetical reasonable reader. Is this asking too much? Possibly, but the more precise the allegation, the safer the author and publisher will be.
And as for GBS, it seems he was wrong. The rules of grammar cannot be discarded as irrelevant. It’s the law!