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Just write what they said

The odd thing is, journalists don’t like to read much.

Write a memo longer than a single page, and no one will get through it. Maybe not even as far as the bottom of the first page.

Some weeks back, when a minor controversy erupted over the publication of journalists’ financial contributions to various political campaigns and causes, a common defense was that the contributors just hadn’t read their newspapers’ ethics policies, or didn’t think they were bound by them.

More recently, a column by The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, on the paper’s policy on rendering quotations found that members of the staff either didn’t know the policy or chose to flout it.

The Sun has an explicit set of guidelines on the matter, which may be news to members of our staff who have not troubled to look into the guidelines:


a. Do not alter quotations, even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. It is our job to report what people say, not to make them look better.

b. It is acceptable, in converting spoken language to the conventions of written language, to omit "uhs;" "ahs" and other non-verbal noises. In questionable cases, ask for clarification, paraphrase, use partial quotes or omit.

c. Do not routinely use phonetic spellings, such as "gonna," or dialect, except when relevant or to convey a desired touch in a feature or column. It tends to look condescending.

d. Avoid fragmentary quotes and bracketed inserts in quotes whenever possible, and particularly when a quotation is selected to be featured in display type. Paraphrase in indirect quotes if partial quotations would be cumbersome.

The rationale has been explained twice in this blog, once in March 2006 and once in April 2006, though it is possible, despite the fevered enthusiasm for this blog among the staff, that some colleagues unaccountably missed the posts.

It all comes down to this: We convert speech to written English by supplying spelling and punctuation — the conventions of writing. We don’t include every mumble or false start; we don’t publish unedited transcripts. Instead, we select significant statements. And when we put words within quotation marks, they are supposed to be the written versions of the words the speaker uttered.

Now that the words people utter can turn up on the radio, on the television, on YouTube, we have to make the written version correspond to the words people can hear, or we sacrifice a portion of our credibility with every discrepancy.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:10 PM | | Comments (5)


How does (a) interact with (c)? Does the Sun reporting "going to" instead of "gonna"?

It would seem that following rule c would make the speaker look better (which is proscribed by rule a).

Here's my problem. I am constantly asking reporters when double-checking quotes, "Did he actually say that?" and they say to me "Just change it." That isn't an answer. Reporters seem incapable of understanding that I'm asking what he said, not whether they agree that the grammar is bad.

Ugh. "Does the Sun reporting..."
Shoot me now. Mea culpa.

JEM: There, there.

There are times when the painfulness of the quote is in fact the story, as the recent "interview section" of the Miss Teen American pageant. Video captures it in all its glory, but it would be a challenge to convey this in print.

Now, what about written material? Leave as is? Would this be correct:

"The President should do whatever Senator Arlen Spector, R-Penna., says," Sen. Joe Smith said in an e-mail.

Do you standardize capitalization? Abbreviations? If you take the "ahs" and "ums" out of spoken speech, should you cap the first word of each written sentence? Fix spelling errors?

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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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