Category Archives: Editing

Real Quotations

I have a new feature on my website: Real Quotations—quotations I’ve come across with pictures of their sources. (Actually, so far there is only one, but I plan to add more soon.)

As an editor, I spend a lot of time trying to verify quotations. Sometimes the author provides a source, making my job easy. At the other extreme, an author may provide a dead hyperlink or nothing at all. There are numerous “quotations” websites, most of them unreliable: you can find five versions of the same alleged quotation and little to help you verify it. (An exception is Bartlett’s, an old, public-domain version of which is online at Library Spot.)

So I decided to start posting good quotations I find, but I don’t expect other editors to have total confidence in my transcribing ability, so with each quotation, I’m posting a picture of the quotation itself and of the title page so that the primary source is there too.

The first one is a quotation I came across last year, from the Rev. Neil Pezzulo: “Even though my influence may be limited, it is not irrelevant.”

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Including quotations in a document

“How do I include quotations in my document? Should I change their language and spelling?” In a new post on her Libro Editing blog, Liz Dexter answers these questions. She explains “how to insert quotations into a text, including what to do if they are in a different variety of English, whether you should change the spellings of quotations and when it is acceptable to change a quotation,” to quote the summary.

She also answers the question “When can I use [sic] in a quotation?” and presents “the golden rule of including quotations in your text.”

Her blog post not only will help editors who need the rules for quotations laid out simply and briefly, it is a good piece for editors to provide to writers who may not know the rules.

When It’s Time to Restrain a Writer

The editor “will see to it that the sensibilities of the readers of the book have been respected and not unnecessarily offended,” says Words into Type (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974, p. 57). I earnestly wished that the editor had followed this instruction with Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling (New York: Doubleday, 2015). Bryson is an entertaining, best-selling, humorous writer who occasionally has been a bit crude. In this book he went beyond being occasionally crude and used the f-word a lot, along with a bunch of crude and obscene terms. I’ve enjoyed some of his other work, but I was sorry I borrowed this one from the library and glad I didn’t buy it.

Words into Type doesn’t say never to let an author offend readers. Sometimes controversial content needs to be published, and some people won’t like it. In The Road to Little Dribbling, there was no need for Bryson to be a potty-mouth. Probably some readers didn’t mind, and probably some found it funny. But his humorous observations didn’t require crudeness, and the book would have been better and just as funny with more restraint.

So how does an editor see that readers are not unnecessarily offended and that their sensibilities are respected? I’ve never personally had to remove obscenity while editing, but I have occasionally had to keep authors on course. My advice is to respect the author’s sensibilities and not unnecessarily offend the author. Where editors recognize a digression, the author may see a jewel of writing. The editor can point out which portions detract from a piece of writing and how they may limit the readership. In my experience, the best authors are open to correction. Still, you may present your advice politely and respectfully and have it rejected. And if the author is a best-seller, the publisher may come down on the side of the author. When Words into Type says, “See to it,” that presumes some authority that an editor may, in reality, lack. Nonetheless, it’s important to try—for the sake of the readers, the author, and the publisher and to do your best work.

A time to clean up quotations

“You never alter a direct quote: that’s the strict editing rule,” wrote Ed Latham on his Ten Minutes Past Deadline blog on May 24, 2016. “Reported speech can be tweaked, but if it’s inside quotation marks, you don’t touch it.” That’s what I was taught, and I have always made it a point to follow that rule.

However, Latham, a sub-editor (British for “copy-editor”), has recognized a situation that may call for cleaning up quotations: when speakers have trouble communicating in English because it is not their native tongue. Latham doesn’t agree with “forcing quotes into standard English.” Sometimes speakers “may have made a conscious choice about using non-standard English; sometimes they may be talking in their natural voice. But, in many cases, they may not speak the language well enough to distinguish one register of English from another, and what they end up saying may be far from what they intended to convey.…”

“The risk of being seen to patronise interviewees by cleaning up their quotes is at least partly balanced by the risk of being seen to have ridiculed them by leaving them untouched.”

Latham gives several examples and discusses the nuances. His post “Ya Gotta Be Championship” is well worth reading in its entirety.

On June 7, Latham followed up with another column, asking, “When a player gives you this as a quote:

For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.

“What’s the correct way to proceed?

  1. Run the quote verbatim …
  2. “Clean up” the quote? …
  3. Take some the words out of direct speech? …</li
  4. Just not run the story at all?…

“After two weeks of thinking about it, I’m still not sure what I would do.”

Cities, states, and commas

A state name paired with a city name “is in effect a parenthetical element,” states Words Into Type. It makes the “preceding reference more specific.” The state name needs to be set off with commas. The Chicago Manual of Style gives similar instruction.

Yet a lot of writers and even some editors set off the state name with only one comma. This can lead to confusion, making the meaning of a sentence hard to comprehend.

This sentence looks like a strange series: “Only Lake City and Tallahassee, Florida and Biloxi, Mississippi have bus stations located downtown.”* It looks like three elements: (1) Lake City and Tallahassee, (2) Florida and Biloxi, and (3) Mississippi. that’s how the commas separate the names. Adding commas after Florida and Mississippi would help: “Only Lake City and Tallahassee, Florida, and Biloxi, Mississippi, have bus stations located downtown.” (By the way, “only” referred to stops between New Orleans and Jacksonville formerly served by Amtrak and currently served by intercity buses.) We could insert those commas and consider the sentence adequately edited; the context indicates which items have stations (the cities, not the states).

However, I still wouldn’t be completely happy with it. The context doesn’t come until the end of the sentence. Reordering the sentence would be one solution: “The only downtown bus stations are in Lake City and Tallahassee, Florida, and Biloxi, Mississippi.” We could also follow the rule that when a series comprises items that themselves contain commas, the items should be set off with semicolons: “The only downtown bus stations are in Lake City and Tallahassee, Florida; and Biloxi, Mississippi.” To me, that semicolon in the middle of the sentence looks funny. William Safire, longtime writer of the New York Times Magazine “On Language” column, advised getting rid of anything that looks funny.

We could put the abbreviated state names after each city and set them off with semicolons: “Only Lake City, Fla.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Biloxi, Miss.; have bus stations located downtown.” I’d consider that satisfactory if kind of heavily puncuated.

For this sentence, parentheses might work well for setting off the state names: “Only Lake City and Tallahassee (Florida) and Biloxi (Mississippi) have bus stations located downtown.” Still, the proximity of (Florida) to Tallahassee might not clearly communicate that Lake City is also in Florida.

My final choice would be to use parentheses and add a few words: “Only Lake City and Tallahassee (both in Florida) and Biloxi (in Mississippi) have bus stations located downtown.” I think that’s clear and reads smoothly.

Can you offer a better solution? If so, please post a comment.

* David Peter Alan, “Is Amtrak Coming Back to the Gulf Coast? Bus Service in the Gulf Coast Region Is Weak,” National Corridors Initiative Destination Freedom, April 18, 2016.

Steve’s Hall of Shame:* 128% Religious

Goa is a very religious place: 128% of the people belong to some religion. (Printed in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance–Star, April 3, 2016.)

Don’t let this happen to you: When editing, check the arithmetic. This news story would have needed fact checking or an author query to find out which number is wrong.


* “Steve’s Hall of Shame” is what one writer called my collection of bloopers. I decided to keep the name.