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?


  1. I would not alter a direct quote. If a direct quote was such a jumble as to embarrass the speaker, or deflect the information, I would be indirect. The subject 'indicated ' that he saw, or 'described' how she saw.

  2. Having been an editor, I have to admit to being a bit of a chicken with quotes. If it was a direct quote with egregious grammar or language errors, I would paraphrase the subject instead of using direct quotes.

    My bigger issue was with submitted material. We had an elected official who submitted a regular "update" column. This was something we offered elected officials at all three levels of government.

    His submissions were awful. Grammar, spelling, punctuation errors in nearly every line. Atrocious.

    After much soul-searching, I decided that our policy for everyone else was that all submitted material was subject to editing for grammar, spelling, length...and under this umbrella, I corrected his articles every time.

    I would have done the same for anyone, as long as it did not change the intention of his/her submission.

    Fundamentally, I believe it is the job of editors of printed material to edit for grammar, spelling, punctuation, language use, and length. It's primarily for our readers, but also recognizing that not everyone has the education or skill set to write at a "publishable" level.

    As long as rules are applied uniformly, I see no issue with editing print materials that may come to us as imperfect.

    Of course, radio and TV are under a different umbrella altogether. It's much more difficult to edit language use in clips!

  3. If a reporter/journalist is going to enclose a sentence or phrase in quotes, the enclosed material should be a true quote. Otherwise, what are " " for? If the material is in dire need of editing, it should be edited, and the quote marks eliminated. Perhaps in the case of the elected official who was semi-literate, the public should know that he/she is and the material printed exactly as submitted. I have more thoughts on this issue, but will leave it for now.

  4. Very interesting debate, Sharon, and one I've had many times with the staff at the magazine I work for, especially since many of them are not journalists by trade. I agree with Dale and Mary that truly terrible or embarrassing grammatical errors can be expressed indirectly, but if there are quotations around it, you ought to be able to assume that it is direct speech. It's quite interesting to see some of the material that shows up on the CBC website when it's accompanied by audio or video--they leave the original quotes, even when the grammar is poor, because of course you can go back and watch the video or listen to the audio.
    Meanwhile, there is a difference between the written and the spoken word. I would have no compunctions about editing a written submission--no matter the source--assuming the sense of the orginal remained. (Hey, it's what I do every day, and sometimes people even thank me for it!)