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Jim Stasiowski

How to use quotes,
besides sparingly

For the worst of reasons, we writers use too many direct quotations.

We too often see them as mini-breaks, moments of relaxation, in the middle the otherwise arduous task of actually writing sentences that we had to form in our very own brains.

What we should be doing instead, however, is weighing direct quotations against a very high standard: Did the source actually say something better than we (the writer) could have said it?

Sometimes, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” Sometimes, the source has said something better – more colorful, more insightful, more original, more angry or more funny – than anything we could have come up with.

But too often, we plug in a quotation either because we’re tired of shouldering the entire load of storytelling, or because we have the vague feeling it’s time to insert something with quotation marks around it. (Some editors practically belly flop to the newsroom floor and pound their fists against the shabby newsroom carpet if no direct quotation appears before Paragraph 5 of any story.)

(By the way, that vague feeling usually is acid reflux.)

Granted, we do have colorful, insightful sources who capture, in a sentence or paragraph, the exact right thought, in the exact right words and tone, and we should not withhold from our readers such perfection. And not every such capture is in perfect English; a sloppily constructed but sincerely expressed quotation can convey loads of meaning, especially when the source is spluttering angrily, and the flaws make clear he or she is out of control.

But too often we end up dropping in a quotation without really pondering whether it works the way it should: as a highlight.

I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, but often when I’m reading a story, if I’m undecided whether to continue, my eyes involuntarily search for the next quotation, and if it’s worthwhile, I continue reading, but if it’s a dud, I’m done.

For a moment, however, let’s stop worrying about the quality of our quotations and start thinking about how we present them. Here are some ideas of how to treat quotations well:

THE MULTI-SENTENCE QUOTATION: In most cases, use the attribution after the first quoted sentence. Readers deserve to know who the source is. Some writers wait until the entire paragraph of quoted sentences ends. That’s too late to identify the speaker.

THE SINGLE-SENTENCE QUOTATION THAT ENDS ON A HIGH POINT: We know from our pals Strunk and White that the place of most emphasis in a sentence is usually the end. (Not the beginning; look it up on Page 32 in “The Elements of Style.”) But when we plug in an attribution, as we do habitually, at the end of a sentence, we smother the end of the quotation. When the ending is sharp, funny, colorful or emphatic, let it breathe; if there is a natural pause (a comma, for instance) in the quotation, place the attribution there.

PROPERLY USING A CAPITAL LETTER AT THE START OF A QUOTATION: The source says, “Now, you know, Jim, my company has always put out a superior product.”

Clearly, the “Now, you know, Jim” is wasted space, so we leave it out; but the overly literal who use only the meat of the quotation will refuse to capitalize the “m” in “my” because they want readers to know that “my company has always put out a superior product” was not the entire sentence.

But The Associated Press Stylebook bails us out, even those of us who like to treat the language like a prized, delicate family heirloom: The stylebook says that if a piece of a quotation is an independent clause, and that’s all we want to use, then capitalize.

The stylebook even uses one of the nation’s greatest patriotic quotations to illustrate. In fact, Patrick Henry’s full sentence was, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

But when we quote the part that matters, we’re allowed to write, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Think about it: If you don’t capitalize the “G,” you’re losing a lot of the emphasis.

Or, if it makes you feel better, use the full sentence. Old Patrick knew how to put the pressure on some of those “others” whose backbones might not have been as stiff as his.

THE FINAL WORD: This one has nagged at me in a few stories I’ve read recently: A person is referred to as being “injured” in a shooting or stabbing.

In general, to be “injured” is to suffer “physical harm or damage,” so certainly, the effect of a gunshot is “harm or damage.” But the word is too mild to describe the damage.

The better verb is “wounded.” A “wound,” the noun, is defined as “an injury to the body in which the skin or other tissue is broken, cut, pierced, torn, etc.”

Jim Stasiowski, managing editor of the Rapid City Journal, welcomes your questions or comments. Call him at (605) 716-0981 or write to 1122 City Springs Road, Apt. 205, Rapid City, S.D. 57002.

POSTED 4/14/16


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