When a lack of punctuation landed a woman in jail

Michael: The incident has already been reported.

When you see that sentence, do you think that I’m talking to Michael, or do you think that Michael said that and I’m quoting him? What if we added one more line for context?

Michael: The incident has already been reported.
Timothy: Then, sir, all is lost!

It’s starting to look like dialogue, right? Like the words after the name Michael are not me talking but in fact are Michael’s own words. Naturally, if I added quotation marks, all doubt would be erased.

Michael: “The incident has already been reported.”

But the quote marks would be wrong. For dialogue, according to both the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, from which I lifted this Michael-Timothy dialogue verbatim, you should use only a colon and no quotation marks.

Yet a colon could mean the opposite. Sometimes colons are used to indicate you’re addressing someone directly. You see this most often in correspondence — emails, letters and the like.

Michael: I hope you’re well.

If this were the first line in an email, the reader would know immediately who’s talking. Plus, if you throw in a word before Michael like “dear” or “hey,” you erase all doubt. Dear Michael: I hope you’re well.

It’s a small miracle that this system doesn’t cause more problems. We can usually infer who’s talking from the context. For example, when we see a news headline that says, “Biden: You can’t have the strongest economy in the world with a second-rate infrastructure,” we know that it’s probably not someone at the newspaper speaking directly to Joe Biden but instead a shorthand way of attributing the quote to the president himself. Even if that’s not immediately clear, it usually takes no more than a sentence or two for the reader to understand who’s talking.

It’s a pretty good system, usually. But it didn’t work out so well for Monica Ciardi, a New Jersey mom who went on Facebook to vent about the way two judges handled her child-custody dispute with her ex-husband. Among Ciardi’s many angry posts was this one: “Judge Bogaard and Judge DeMarzo: If you don’t do what I want then you don’t get to see your kids. Hmm.”

Soon after, local police swarmed Ciardi’s house, handcuffed her and put her in jail, where she would spend the next 35 days for “terroristic threats, harassment and retaliation against a public official,” according to the New Jersey Monitor.

Ciardi says she wasn’t speaking to the judges — wasn’t harassing them or threatening them on her 50-follower Facebook account. She was instead paraphrasing the judges’ words and actions as she interpreted them — summing up the jurists’ implicit message. “She got arrested because she forgot quotation marks,” Ciardi’s public defender, Mackenzie Shearer, told the paper.

Yes, quotation marks could have prevented the whole unfortunate incident. But technically you can’t forget a punctuation mark if it was never required in the first place. Here's my recent column explaining the situation.

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