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Is e-mail speech or writing?

Confounding all expectation, people appear to be reading these postings. The previous item on quotations prompted a question from a reader about a relatively novel issue: quoting e-mail texts.

"[W]hen an interview is conducted by e-mail, or supplementary information is gathered by e-mail, should that always be signaled in the text, or is it okay to use the usual "said" and "according to" and "mentioned" as the verbs?"

Indicating in an article that an interview was conducted by e-mail is as much a point of accurate sourcing as saying that an interview was conducted by telephone or in a face-to-face encounter.

Once that has been established, "said," "according to" and "mentioned" are probably acceptable as loose attribution. But if you are going to be as strict about reproducing texts exactly as they were written as I recommended previously, you should probably use "wrote."

No doubt we’ll be hearing from people who disagree.

I’m sure that practice varies. The exchanges in the famous Paris Review interviews of authors — now available free and electronically at

— were traded back and forth between interviewer and subject in manuscript form so that both questions and answers could be refined. They were presented as direct speech, but the method was explained.

The thing is not to bamboozle the reader about what is going on.

On another topic, a colleague points out that "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge," another folk candidate for the origin of one of English’s most-beloved verbs, is "also the title of a Van Halen album." Not having paid any particular attention to rock music since the spring of 1970, I was unaware of that.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:34 PM | | Comments (2)


I think you're right when a text is being quoted as a text, as with a leaked e-mail message between government officials, but when e-mail is merely the medium of an interview I think spelling, capitalization and punctuation errors become the equivalent of coughs and stutters and "ums" in telephone interviews.

In regards to the topic of quoting the text of e-mail messages exactly: Would this differ from how one would quote from a corporate press release or a corporate spokesman's e-mail sent in response to a question? If, say, the news release said, or the spokesman wrote, "The Executive Vice President of the Company feels its Long-term Growth Strategy will increase sales of SCRABBLE games considerably," would one be obligated to reproduce the statement in that form if one were to directly quote it in a story (and I know a newspaper never would quote such a lame statement, but for the sake of discussion . . . )? If not, how does the corporate news release or e-mail differ from the treatment of other e-mail or written communication that might be quoted -- why must one be reproduced exactly while the other is "cleaned up" to conform to style? Where is the line drawn?

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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
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