Style Matters #36: When a speaker doesn’t quite say it how you need to quote it

blog-keyboard-worked

Substituting spoken words with more precise words in parentheses when quoting a speaker is an art form that some news writers seem to have all mixed up.

The dilemma usually starts when you need to use a direct quote but the speaker has:

  • lapsed into familiarities that won’t be understood by the reader or have yet to be introduced in the story
  • used a personal pronoun* (you, he, she, him, her, we, us, they, them or it) or instead of a name when that has the potential to confuse readers
  • failed to clarify which person, or thing, they were referring to
  • expressed themselves ungrammatically (^ although correcting direct speech is still forbidden in some newsrooms).

(* Oddly enough, the personal pronouns I and me usually do not present much of a problem because the attribution phrase will take care of identification.)

In such cases, the writer either has to turn the direct quote into indirect speech or substitute the correct words, in parentheses, to clarify the quote’s meaning.

However, if the latter option is chosen, for news copy at least, the operative word here is substitute, not add. It is a tradition that goes back many, many decades, yet lately it seems to have been forgotten.

Readers really are smart enough to understand the necessity for the substitution if what is written in place of the original words is now grammatically and factually correct. The sentence will also flow better.

I’ll use examples from a court story to illustrate what I mean:

(original direct quote)
“My sweetie would have stopped him but he wasn’t with me,” the victim told the court.

(incorrect alteration)
“My sweetie (her boyfriend, Alfred Blank) would have stopped him but he wasn’t with me,” the victim told the court.

(correct alteration)
“(Her boyfriend, Alfred Blank) would have stopped him but he wasn’t with me,” the victim told the court.

(also correct)
The victim told the court her boyfriend, Alfred Blank, would have stopped the intruder had he been with her.

———-

(original text, including direct quote)
When witness Alice Brown took the stand, she was able to explain how the robbery unfolded.
“We were standing just metres from the counter at the time, waiting to be served,” Ms Brown said.

(incorrect alteration)
“We (Ms Brown and her daughter, Evelyn) were standing just metres from the counter at the time, waiting to be served,” Ms Brown said.

(correct alteration)
“(Ms Brown and her daughter, Evelyn) were standing just metres from the counter at the time, waiting to be served,” she said.

(also correct)
Ms Brown said she and her daughter, Evelyn, were “standing just metres from the counter, waiting to be served”.

———-

 (original direct quote)
“The suspect was holding it to her head, threatening to shoot,” Sen-Const Smith said.

(incorrect alteration)
“The suspect was holding it (the gun) to her head, threatening to shoot,” Sen-Const Smith said.

(correct alteration)
“The suspect was holding (the gun) to her head, threatening to shoot,” Sen-Const Smith said.

(also correct)
Sen-Const Smith said the suspect was holding the gun to the woman’s head, threatening to shoot.

———-

(original direct quote)
“The gunman screamed at the customers to get down but I must’ve froze,” the teller said.

(incorrect alteration)
“The gunman screamed at the customers to get down but I must have frozen,” the teller said.

(correct alteration ^)
“The gunman screamed at the customers to get down but I (must have frozen),” the teller said.

(also correct)
The teller said he must have frozen when the gunman had screamed at the customers to get down.

NB: Academic, business and other formal writers should note that some publishers prefer to add rather than substitute in such cases, so it is always wise to check the house style.

———

If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters or connect via Facebook by liking the reporting4work Facebook Page 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s