Thursday, June 24, 2010

Are we language snobs?

One of the dilemmas that print journalists often struggle with is how much to modify people's speech within a direct quote – or whether to modify it at all.

I have been thinking about this for two reasons: it seems to me that I'm seeing more and more stories in print that include direct quotes in which the speaker uses poor grammar and/or awkward and incorrect use of words. The second reason has to do with the comments that follow most news stories and opinion pieces on-line. My goodness, many people really do write badly – and I'm not talking about their often-despicable attitudes.

It takes me back to newsrooms and to the kind of debate that used to happen between editors and reporters. I've had discussions with reporters when I could tell that they had amended some of their quotations and not others. I think there's a tendency to want to clean up the language if someone is saying something you want to hear and to leave it as is – complete with grammatical errors and misuse of words – if you want to punish someone for what they're saying.

That one is easy: if you're going to make appropriate corrections for the mayor/premier/prime minister, you have to make them for others whom you're quoting in the story.

But should you be changing anyone's actual words? If you're interviewing someone whose house has just burned down and he says, "I seen the smoke and me and the wife both ran into the house to get the kids and the dogs. Her and me talked about it later – we was both out of breath – and all that matters is that everyone is okay."

Those sentences would require a lot of changing – not just a word or two. Should they be changed? "I saw the smoke and my wife and I both ran into the house to get the kids and the dogs. She and I talked about it later – we were both out of breath – and all that matters is that everyone is okay."

Does it change the tone of the occasion? Does the loss of the home seem more – or less – significant depending on how the protagonist speaks? Would a reader assume that the first speaker lost a mobile home in a trailer park and the second lost a nice house in the suburbs – and is there one that seems the greater loss?

Whether I like it or not, the way an opinion is expressed in the comment section makes a difference in how seriously I accept the commenter's viewpoint. I can only conclude that I assimilate the quotes in a news story in the same way.

The Canadian Press says its policy is to "quote people verbatim and in standard English." It says it "corrects slips of grammar that are obvious slips and that would be needlessly embarrassing."

And then there are accents and dialects, a whole other subject.

Where do you stand on the idea of "cleaning up" direct quotations?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Oops. Did I say that?

When you self-identify as the Grammar Queen, there's a lot of pressure every time you put pen to paper or open your mouth. You see, I know that even in that sentence, I should have said, "When one self-identifies as the Grammar Queen, there's a lot of pressure every time one puts pen to paper ... "

Using the word "one" instead of "you" in that sentence sounds formal and impersonal. Like you, for ease of speaking, I prefer a more familiar and casual style. (Did you catch that one? I said, "Like you, I prefer ..." I should, more correctly, have said, "As you do, I prefer ...")

More correctly. Am I even allowed to say that? Isn't "correct" like "unique" – an absolute that doesn't accept a comparison modifier?

I hasten to assure you that I don't skulk about with a discreet notebook, jotting down every mistake I hear and I don't openly correct anyone in conversation. (Well, maybe lovingly, now and then, in the privacy of home.)

There are degrees of difficulty in the rules of word use and some are much more easily ignored and forgiven than others.

Which brings me to the beautiful verb, "to lie," with all its lovely forms: lie, lay, laid, lain ... I admit, it's one of the more difficult ones. But a few days ago, when a friend of mine twittered, "But for now we are young; Let us lay in the sun; And count every beautiful thing we can see," I couldn't ignore it. I responded to her tweet: "Let us lie in the sun!"

She's an editor too and she knew it was wrong but, said she, "I love the song!"

In this case, I'm not forgiving at all. As I told her, I can sometimes accept a glaring grammatical error if it's for rhyming or scanning purposes. In this case, it could so easily have been changed and the song would not have suffered.

I'm afraid learning to love this song is a musical experience I'll have to forego.