Cleaning up quotes

QUESTION: You return to the office after a news conference or interview and take a look or listen to sections you think are most important to your story. You realize that the interviewee has made a few grammatical errors. Should you slightly alter or clean up the quotes to use better English?

Answer by Michelle MacAfee

This can be a tricky one. As journalists, we all strive to take down quotes as accurately as possible. Of course, this is easier if the interview or news conference is taped, but if you are relying on your shorthand it’s quite likely you didn’t get every single word down verbatim.

But what to do with what you have?

While some news outlets allow writers to take liberties with quotes, The Canadian Press takes a strict approach to any tampering with the exact wording.

The CP Stylebook says people should be quoted verbatim and in standard English.

“We correct slips of grammar that are obvious slips and that would be needlessly embarrassing. We remove verbal mannerisms such as ‘ahs’, routine vulgarities and meaningless repetitions. Otherwise we do not revise quotations.”

Abnormal spellings and grammar are not often used to indicate dialects, but the Stylebook uses this example to illustrate how cleaning up a quote (from a concerned unionized  fisherman) would have sucked some of the life out of the story:

“We don’t want our money took to Toronto and not spent on behalf of our members,” said Eric Miller. “The few dollars that I makes, I want it spent on behalf of my family, my friends and my brothers and sisters in Newfoundland.”

During my three years as CP’s Newfoundland correspondent I often struggled with decisions about when an accurate quote would have added necessary colour and when it would have just been shining an unnecessary glaring spotlight on someone’s education level.

I would ask myself: If I’m going to clean up the premier’s slip or non-sensical run-on sentence, why not do the same for a fisherman?

The AP Stylebook advises writers NEVER alter quotations, even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage.

“Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution. If there is a question about a quote, either don’t use it or ask the speaker to clarify.”

Reporters working in the Parliament Hill Press Gallery struggled with these same questions often during Jean Chretien’s tenure as prime minister.

Some reporters have said they were often able to pull together one of his English quotes verbatim that made sense. But when a quote was essential to the story, the gallery tried to quote him as close to verbatim as possible. When the quotes weren’t as newsy, they would clean up, or use brackets, around some of his language.

Once I sit down to write, I have often run into situations where I realize that in an effort to keep my copy tight, ie: with short quotes, I am taking the speaker out of context.

So I am faced with a choice – either use the entire two- or three-sentence quote, or be sure to paraphrase part of it as my lead-in graf or follow-up.

It’s also important to insert colour, such as whether the speaker smiled or laughed, to put the words in proper context.

Michelle MacAfee worked for the Canadian Press for 13 years – in Edmonton, St. John’s, Montreal and Winnipeg.