Monday, January 10, 2005

Dot Dot Dot

(This essay is now a Sharp Point.)

In "Lapsing Into a Comma," I caution against beginning or ending a quotation with ellipses: "It's silly to indicate omission at the beginning or end of a quote, since virtually all quotes are from people who have spoken before in their lives and will do so again."

Now, then, a case study. You're a copy editor, and you're editing a story that contains the following paragraph:

"I really don't think it's a good idea," he said. ". . . And I'm not going to support any such move."
Do you kill the ellipses? I hope you don't. The "And I'm not" part is not the beginning of a quote; the "I really don't think" part is. If you delete the ellipses, you imply that the following sequence was uttered:

"I really don't think it's a good idea. And I'm not going to support any such move."
A no-ellipses version of the initial example is exactly how most reporters would render the above quote. That's how we write. We often — usually — put the attribution for a multiple-sentence quote after the first sentence.

What the reporter was indicating with the ellipses, unless this reporter just likes to decorate copy with dots, is that something more like this was said:

"I really don't think it's a good idea. I just don't. And I'm not going to support any such move."
Think about it: If we kill the ellipses, how is a reader to tell whether the two sets of quote marks indicate two discrete quotations or simply the standard attribution placement for a multiple-sentence quote? To put it another way, two quotes should not share one attribution.

If the ellipses look silly to you (and I admit that they look less than elegant), there are other options:

"I really don't think it's a good idea," he said. He added: "And I'm not going to support any such move."
Or:

"I really don't think it's a good idea," he said.

"And I'm not going to support any such move," he added.
Better yet, present the quote intact. I'm not quite as anti-dot-dot-dot as my friend Merrill Perlman of the New York Times, who has called ellipses and bracketed insertions in quotes "dishonest," but I'm pretty darn close. Unless the stuff between the salient statements was completely irrelevant jibberish, it's usually better to let it stand.

7 comments:

Felix Salmon said...

I think there's a difference between

"I really don't think it's a good idea," he said. "I'm not going to support any such move."

and

"I really don't think it's a good idea," he said, "and I'm not going to support any such move."

I read the former as two separate quotes, which could have any amount of stuff in between them, and which might not even have been said in that order. The second implies a single sentence, although I still think that editors can take out excess verbiage and random redundancies for the sake of clarity and ease of reading.

Bill said...

Do you think the way a reporter reports "A. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah [five-minute coffee break]. Blah blah Blah. B" and "A. B" should BOTH be:

"A," he said. "B."

I don't.

Felix Salmon said...

Yes, if AB is the germane thing which he is saying. The reader is not served by my telling him about the coffee break, the cellphone distraction, and the digression about whether it was going to rain that afternoon. I think that cleaning things up like this is a bit like cleaning up grammatical errors. If it clearly gets across what the person intends to say, then no harm, no foul. Concentrating on pedantic issues about sequencing misses the much more important point about how journalists choose the 10 words out of a 30-minute conversation which they're going to use as direct quotation in their piece. If you pick the right ten words, then it doesn't matter how you present them. If you pick the wrong ten words, then no amount of accuracy in how you present them will make those words the truth.

Bernie said...

This is a great blog. The content and design are great. Check me out if you have a chance.

Check me out if you have a chance

bernietop17.blogspot.com

Bridey Murphy said...

I hope you're not an editor, Felix, because -- putting it as gently as I can, and speaking from long years of experience -- you have no idea what you're talking about. Selecting the quotes to use from a long interview is part of the reporter's job, and it has nothing to do with making it appear somebody said something they didn't say. One is reporting, and the other is making things up. Most newspapers that aren't sold at supermarket checkout stands try to avoid making things up.

To call an insistence on accurate reporting "pedantic questions of sequencing" is bizarre, and defending it with "If it clearly gets across what the person was trying to say, no harm, no foul" is, well, idiotic. We don't report what people were "trying to say," we report what they said. That's a basic distinction.

Apologies for the tone of the post, but geeze.

Doug Fisher said...

Bill:

This points out the other pedantic silliness I hear in some quarters: insisting that attribution must go between the two sentences in a two-sentence quote. In the example you use, I would much prefer:
"I really don't think it's a good idea. ... And I'm not going to support any such move," he said. At least then it is absolutely clear what was going on (and it should give us cause to pause and ask whether the ellptic form is the best quote, as Merrill does).
Now, if it is two quotes separated by minutes of other stuff, then the honest way is, as you note, not to share one attribution but to give each its own.

David said...

(Not being an editor), I thought that the three dots meant that something was left out of a sentence, rather than entire comments being left out. So wouldn't we use 'and' rather than 'And'? That is, "... and I'm not going to support any such move."

If it is correct to end a sentence with something omitted with '... .', then leaving out an entire sentence would give us "... . And I'm not going to support any such move."

That of course looks strange, which brings us back to the suggestion of clarifying whether this is one quote or two.