You can quote me
Not long after the previous posting on quotations in articles ("Warts and all," March 27), the topic sprang up on the discussion board of the American Copy Editors Society. (Non-members can have a look. Go to www.copydesk.org and from the pull-down menu at the top of the page select Site Features and click on Discussion Board.)
The comments were typical of what reporters and editors say about quotes:
"I know plenty of people who say walkin' instead of walking. Or talkin' instead of talking. Or ‘We were thinkin' about that.’ And yet we always seem to write Walking, Talking, Thinking. Or ‘We're 'bout ready to go get 'em.’ And we write ‘We're about ready to go get them.’"
"How often do we see quoted all of the ‘Ummmms’ people say when they're
thinking about what to say next?"
"And to take that a step further, what about all the other ‘filler words’ people use just like many use ‘ummm’? Do you quote every ‘like’ or ‘I mean’?
Such comments overlook the important distinction between selected quotation and transcript. Any reader of even moderate intelligence sees that articles do not purport to run transcripts of what people say. Journalists select significant quotes, omitting non-verbal noises, and transcribing the spoken words into the conventions — spelling and punctuation — of written language. When we run a transcript, the complete, exact words as uttered, we call it a transcript.
Moreover, we do not attempt to reproduce people’s accents and inflections. First off, it looks condescending. Second, there is no standard method of reproducing spoken language in writing. Every writer would come up with a distinctive set of phonetic spellings, which would drive readers mad.
I suppose that newspapers could transcribe every quotation in the International Phonetic Alphabet. We’d have to add the schwa (that upside down e) to our fonts, and break every word into syllables with accent marks to show primary and secondary stresses. Who wants that?
Talking about ummm and like, you know misses the point: The words inside quotation marks should be the words the person uttered, subject to the conventions of written language.
There is a greater concern: Many people complain that they are not quoted accurately in news articles. Sometimes it may be that they do not like seeing what they said, but the complaints are so numerous and so persistent that they cannot be dismissed out of hand.
If reporters do not know shorthand or use tape recorders, then they reconstruct quotes from a combination of notes and memory. The central concern, then, is not whether to choose between walkin’, talkin’ and thinkin’ and walking, talking and thinking, but to be sure that we know what the subject actually said.