How do you quote someone?

It’s a problem that comes up all the time for writers: quoting someone accurately. Imagine a reporter or writer with a small notepad and pencil, furiously taking notes while someone he or she interviewing is talking. Maybe they’re talking rapidly. They’re agitated or in a hurry. Or maybe their English isn’t perfect because it’s not their first language, or they’re speaking in slang.

Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_WashingtonConsider athletes. While many are well-spoken, many use double-negatives, slang words like ain’t, crutch words or phrases like “man,” “you know,” and “like,” and poor noun-verb agreement.

For example, a player might say, “Man, we was winnin’, you know, and like, the refs missed all them calls. That ain’t right, man, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Is the reporter bound to quote that player verbatim? Or is he or she obligated not to make the subject look foolish or unintelligent?

The answer (and you knew this was coming) is, it depends.

If the context is such that the person’s speech patterns are important, quote them verbatim. For instance, if this reporter were writing a magazine article on the education of student-athletes, the accurate quote might reinforce a point about needing to spend more time in English class.

However, if the reporter is merely reporting the outcome of a game, I think they’re obligated to clean up the quote. Therefore, the athlete’s quote above becomes, “We were winning, and the refs missed all those calls. That’s not right.”

In fact, the rules of journalism say that as long as an author doesn’t change the meaning or intent of a quote, it needn’t be verbatim. (I think this rule came about from having to translate hastily scribbled notes on a small pad of paper, hours after they were written down!)

But this rule, in my opinion, is becoming a relic of a bygone era. With digital recording readily available from one’s phone, there’s no reason a reporter can’t record a conversation and then transcribe it word-for-word. Once the reporter has the source material, then he or she can decide whether to use it verbatim or change the language to best reflect the situation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *