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For someone who’s been in journalism as long as I have, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Indeed, I’m a bit embarrassed now even to mention the matter.
I was sitting at the dinner table with several members of my own family. We’d just enjoyed a good meal, and in other circumstances might have moved on to important topics like politics, international terrorism, or baseball. Instead, I brought up the matter of quotation marks. Like this: “Quotation marks.”
“How literally do you take them?” I asked.
Except maybe that wasn’t exactly what I said. Maybe what I said was more like: “When you see words inside a pair of quotation marks, what assumptions do you make? Do you assume that’s exactly what was said?”
I can’t remember now exactly what any of us said. No one at the table that evening, you see, was taking notes or recording our conversation. But even without the aid of such tools, I think the folks sitting there that evening would agree that this was the main drift of the exchange.
Our disagreement came when I acknowledged that for my whole journalistic career, I have used quotation marks not only to indicate actual words and phrases, but meaning and intent as well.
“No, no!” one of my daughters responded. “I don’t believe it!”
Or did she say, “I can’t believe it!”?
So does it really matter which of the two exclamations I report to you? Do you trust me less because you know now that my reporting, in this fairly trivial dinner-table example, was based more on my arbitrary choice than on my notebook or tape recorder?
‘Quotation marks. … How literally do you take them?’ I asked
For while the difference between “don’t” and “can’t,” in this context, is pretty small, I’m also quite aware how slippery this slope might become if the reporter isn’t trustworthy. If you catch me, through such arbitrary choices, making someone to be saying things he or she never said—or meant to say—then you’d better grab me quick and rein me in.
But I would suggest several cases where it is fully appropriate to attribute words—within quotation marks—even if it’s not a literal transcription.
The first, and most obvious, comes when the person being quoted uses bad grammar or makes an obvious but inconsequential factual error. Why should I make someone look bad—especially if the misstep is unusual or exceptional coming from that particular source? I have no problem correcting the error and leaving the statement inside the quotation marks. (Some folks resort to the use of the Latin sic as a signal that you realize there’s an error there, but that the error doesn’t belong to the reporter. The sic signal, though, can come across as arrogant or condescending. It’s never my job to make my source look inappropriately stupid.)
Example number two comes with the practice of trimming lengthy (or, in really bad cases, verbose) quotes. A good check and balance in the use of this device is to ask with sincerity: “Am I helping—or perhaps hurting—the person I’m quoting?” If there’s doubt, back off. But there is a place for extending a gracious pruning hand to both the person being quoted and the reader—and still leaving the passage within quotes.
A third example comes with the duty and high ethical calling of a translator. Take any two English translations of the Bible, open both to one of the Gospels, and note that the two versions probably have differing statements, within quotation marks, of something Jesus said. Which do you accept as the true transcript?
News writing, including interviewing, admittedly differs from academic writing. And the specific rules of the game for our news reporters here at WORLD News Group are more stringent than those for this column. Our news pages, for example, typically use ellipses to signal abbreviated quotes, and we instruct reporters to write down quotes verbatim and, in most circumstances, record. Our main goal here is to promote your trust in the reporting that fills these pages. If our use of quotation marks ever reduces your trust, or promotes anything resembling “fake news,” we have failed you badly. In the meantime, this column after 30 years is still waiting for its first complaint of misquoting a source.