Public Editor

What’s in a quotation?


An emailer posed two excellent questions today (which regular readers will recognize from other posts and columns I’ve written):

1) When a word appears in parentheses within a quote, is the bracketed word a replacement of an unacceptable word or an addition to the original quote?

2) If a quote is changed when going to print, can it still be called an accurate quote? Should the reporter paraphrase the original spoken quote if it is changed or edited between when it was said and when it is printed?

He added that he’s noticed interviews with a Royals player (whom I will leave unnamed here) are peppered with numerous “you knows,” yet those don’t appear usually when he’s quoted in The Star.

“Cleaning up” quotes is one of the few ethical topics where I’ve found much disagreement among professional journalists. The written word is, of course, a very different beast from audio and video recording, where this question is moot.

There are some journalists who believe in routine correction of minor errors — removing meaningless words, such as the ubiquitous “you know,” or substituting the correct word when a speaker has made an obvious error of confusion.

The reasoning is that those throwaway phrases amount to nothing more than vocalized pauses. And ues, I’m certain many people don’t realize they use them, the same way they aren’t cognizant of the “uhs” and “ums” most of us vocalize. And who among us hasn’t said “faction” when we meant “fraction” at some point? We all misspeak occasionally.

That approach differs from the Associated Press’s style rule, which is clear and strongly-worded:

Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution.

When it comes to quotes that use vulgarities or other words editors may not wish to publish, the AP offers:

In some stories or scripts, it may be better to replace the offensive word with a generic descriptive in parentheses, e.g., (vulgarity) or (obscenity).

I’m generally in agreement with this, though it poses some problems. We’ve all seen people use excruciatingly literal transcriptions of quotes to mock a speaker by noting every verbal misstep, minor or not. That’s childish and unnecessary, in my opinion.

As my emailer suggests, a better solution in cases where a speaker’s exact words are ineloquent or confusing is for the journalist simply to paraphrase.