Friday, February 20, 2004

It's about time

Was anyone else shocked to read the Washington Post's just-changed rules on editing quotes in this Editor & Publisher story?

The old rule: Unless difficulties with the language are relevant to the story, as in an article about teaching English to immigrants or a profile of Yogi Berra, it is advisable to correct minor errors of grammar and usage. Such locutions as hafta, gonna, gotta, whaddaya and woulda should be spelled out in correct form unless they are stressed for effect.

The new rule: When we put a source's words inside quotation marks, those exact words should have been uttered in precisely that form. Sometimes we will want to avoid humiliating a speaker by paraphrasing in grammatical form an ungrammatical statement, or by presenting in a form acceptable for publication a statement that includes profanities. When we do so, however, we should not use quotation marks. A paraphrase should not be treated as a quotation. At the same time, we should not deprive our readers of the statements of legitimate news sources who characteristically speak so ungrammatically, or use such profane language, that we cannot quote them verbatim.

What are papers doing, cleaning up quotes?

This seems like one of the easiest rules of journalism: Quotes are sacred. You don't mess with them. You don't clean up grammar. You don't second-guess word choice.

This is one thing AP is actually crystal clear about: "Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage." Never.

That means if you're editing a quote that has an error, you don't change it without first talking to the reporter. Even obvious errors. Quotes are sacred.

But it doesn't mean you have to write the quote exactly how someone pronounces it, any more than you would change the spelling for someone with an accent. Hafta should be have to. Gonna should be going to. I do agree with that part of the Post's old rule, and the new rule doesn't appear to change that.

This seems so elementary to me that I'm shocked it isn't the rule everywhere. But this Testy Copy Editors thread makes clear that this is not the case.


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