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Warts and all

A reader has complained that we are too sloppy at The Sun to catch and correct typos, citing these passages: "I know where you live and I am going to braek …" and "He was having an anfare."

Looks bad.

But what the reader did not take into account was that the passages were extracted from e-mail messages the article was quoting. Our practice in quoting texts is to present them as they were written, rather than correcting minor errors or making capitalization, abbreviations and other details conform to our house style.

Not all publications are scrupulous to this extent. Some also follow long-standing newspaper practice of "cleaning up" quotes. The reason for doing so is usually to spare the subjects being quoted any embarrassment. It is not a good reason, because it usually involves doing someone a favor. Yes, for example, it could be embarrassing for a quotation to reveal that a school principal doesn’t make subjects and verbs agree. But a journalist’s responsibility is to present people as they are, not as better than they are. (The latter task is the job of the press agent or spokesman.) Besides, if a school principal, or a senator, or a college president doesn’t make subjects and verbs agree, that may be something the public ought to know.

At The Sun our standard is that the words within quotation marks should be the words uttered by the speaker. This is a more complex matter than it may first appear, because spoken language is by no means easily converted into written language. What occurs is more like a transliteration from another language. Punctuation must be supplied, along with standard spelling. "Um," "uh," coughs, snorts and other nonverbal sounds are omitted.

At the same time, we do not typically indulge in phonetic spellings. Trying to represent dialect is imprecise and distracting, and it can appear that the writer is trying to make the subject look ridiculous. In Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger hit on the technique of representing the stresses and emphases of speech by italicizing individual syllables. That way lies madness.

What we aim for in quoting people is not a raw transcript, but a representation of their actual words within the conventions of standard written English. Warts and all.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:56 PM | | Comments (6)
        

Comments

Is "sic" no longer used?

We avoid using "sic" because it tends to look snotty.

Oh, I *like* "sic." Does that make me a nerd?
I could swear I've heard someone quoted as saying, "Umm."

There's an interesting article on the same topic (with the same title, incidentally) at http://www.poynter.org/dg.lts/id.1/aid.2873/column.htm .

It argues that journalists shouldn't clean up quotations.

Many entries in this blog have mentioned The Sun's "house style." Is the document which explicates it available to the public?

The Sun's stylebook, which is basically AP style to which local additions and exceptions have been made, exists only electronically, in a database that is not available beyond the staff.

Your brother in arms Bill Walsh had a posting about this recently, though I was unable to find it, in which he made a distinction between quotes of written material identified by "he said" and those identified by "he wrote." He said (forgive me, Mr. Walsh, if I'm miscontruing; this is from memory) he treats prepared statements and e-mails as though they were spoken, and thus will make them conform to written conventions. I'm pretty sure caveats apply, such as making clear the form that the statements were given in -- oral, written or e-mail.

I see fixing capitalization, grammar and spelling in e-mail quotes as a matter of clarity, not as a matter of "cleaning up" someone's sloppiness. If the quote is so sloppy as to be confusing, either make it clear or paraphrase it. No purpose is served in using a sloppily spelled and punctuated quote, unless that sloppy spelling and punctuation is part of the story. You confuse the reader and make it look as though the staff of the paper doesn't know spelling and grammar.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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