Friday, August 24, 2007

'It Is I,' Said the Fullback

Sorry, but I never get tired of that line. It was the title of one of my original Sharp Points on The Slot, and that essay became a sidebar in "Lapsing Into a Comma." My little joke almost became reality last month when Clinton Portis of the Washington Redskins, not a fullback but a running back, was quoted once in the Washington Post talking like Clinton Portis and elsewhere in the Washington Post saying the same thing on the same occasion, only like George Will.

The issue of "cleaning up" quotes is one on which journalists are split pretty much 50-50, in my experience. And each side thinks the other is nuts. Post ombudsman Deborah Howell sums up the controversy and argues for using a speaker's actual words here and here. Post humorist Gene Weingarten, an otherwise reasonable fellow, eloquently presents the don't-tell-us-what-people-actually-said viewpoint here (it's not right away; be patient and enjoy the other stuff).

My thoughts are here. And here: We get to say what we want everywhere else; let the speakers say what they want within quotation marks. If it's Clinton Portis, who obviously steers clear of Henry Higgins English on purpose, allow him the courtesy of using his own words. If it's some poor schlub who simply made a mistake because he's human and he's nervous and he doesn't usually get interviewed by newspapers, put the salient words in quotes and correct the subject-verb agreements outside quotes. If he accidentally says, "I has a heck of a dilemma," make it a partial quote and say that he has "a heck of a dilemma."

The ombudsman got plenty of feedback, and one reader made a point I wish I'd thought of: If we clean up quotations to avoid making readers look bad, would we also touch up photographs of them to remove their blemishes?


Unknown said...

Or better yet, should we dub over people's speech when they're on non-live TV?

Monica said...

Beyond taking out the "um"s and "ah"s, I don't think quotes should be altered as quotes. Your solution seems appropriate, and not doing that strikes me as a sign of laziness.

I was once quoted by someone who changed my quote, as a quote, to match house style. In doing so, the reporter introduced what I consider to be a grammatical error. I was offended that he put incorrect words in my mouth.


Patrick K. Lackey said...

What's your position on putting a "sic" after a grammatical error in a quote? The writer seems to be pointing a finger at the error and saying "Lookee, lookee! What a dolt."

If it is wrong for a reporter to alter a speaker's words, why is it right for an editor to drastically alter a reporter's words? Maybe editing-averse reporters should turn in entire stories in quotes.

aka Patrick K. Lackey

Helen DeWitt said...

I don't much like all this cleaning up, because it means non-standard dialects can never be seen in the public domain. I used to live in Derbyshire, where people said 'I were', 'he, she, it were', 'we was,' 'you was' -- if that's what someone says, that's what should be printed. I think 'should've' would probably be OK, though, as a transcription of what sounds like 'should of' -- about on a par with transcribing 'cain't' as 'can't'.

kostia said...

I just finished making some final corrections to a book about education for girls in low-income countries. The authors made several corrections inside quotations on this round, to clarify/clean up what was being said, and I thought of this blog entry.

The thing is, the quotations were of course not originally spoken in English, but in Spanish, Nepali, Lao, and other languages. I thought it was an interesting addition to the question; a literal, word-for-word translation might not actually carry the intended meaning at all.

Brida Connolly said...

"If it is wrong for a reporter to alter a speaker's words, why is it right for an editor to drastically alter a reporter's words?"

Because accuracy and clarity (and not getting sued) are the primary aims when presenting news in print. Preserving a reporter's deathless prose comes fairly far down the list.

Doug said...


Thank you and amen.