Jan 20, 2014


Jan 20, 2014

From the Newsroom

Raji Chacko

Examining the use and abuse of quotation marks and pondering its punctuation.

The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary might not seem as cheeky today as it did when it was first thought up by Ambrose Bierce in the 1880s. However, many of its definitions still make for entertaining reading. Bierce, a columnist himself and probably unaware of how often his words would be repeated (or probably fully aware of this) defines quotation as “the act of repeating erroneously the words of another”.

Quotation marks then — or inverted commas as the British say — are primarily used to enclose direct speech (or correctly repeat the words of another) in written text. They can also be used when quoting text from another source in your work. Double or single quotation marks are also used to indicate the name of books, poems, essays, etc.

Often, one stumbles upon a quote that puts into words exactly what one is thinking. It could then prove to be very difficult to keep this quote out of your article or post because it is so apt. Alternatively, you might be writing a piece where you have managed to collect different opinions that you want to include as is to capture the different points of view. Or you might have decided to interview someone for your article or post. Whatever the reason, it is possible that at some point in your writing, you have had to use quotation marks. Inverted commas — as the British say — or quotation marks are primarily used to enclose direct speech in written text. They can also be used when quoting text from another source in your work. Double or single quotation marks are also used to indicate the name of books, poems, essays, etc.

Mind your quotes

Quotes or direct speech have two distinct advantages. They allow the writer to reproduce the speaker’s words with all its flavour. Why, for instance, would anyone paraphrase George Bush when the actual words are so entertaining? For a news reporter, direct speech also helps with the goal of objectivity. By putting an opinion within quotation marks and attributing it to an individual, reporters can clarify that this is not their own opinion or that of their newspaper and also retain the option of presenting a different perspective in another set of quotation marks.

However, when quoting someone it is important to be accurate in reproducing what was said, for legal and ethical reasons. Sometimes, an interview might be conducted in one language and has to be reproduced in another as is the case with most English language publications in India. When this happens, I usually get the final translated material, especially anything in quotation marks, signed off by the interviewees or someone authorised to do so on their behalf; it’s even better if this is done over email so there is a written record of it. The alternative is to paraphrase or to reproduce a transliterated version with a translation, clearly identified as such, in parentheses. Misquoting has the potential to spark international disputes as this article (http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2013/aug/02/iran-rouhani-misquoted-on-israel) shows.

When quoting someone, it is best to avoid selective quotation or quoting out of context. Consider, for instance, this article in an Indian daily, the Indian Express (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/robert-vadra-pocketed-large-premium-on-colony-license-ashok-khemka/1153666/): ‘Vadra “pocketed” a huge premium on a commercial license through money that he could account for, Khemka alleged.’ Readers might wonder if “pocketed” is in quotes because the writer is being sarcastic about Khemka’s version of events or whether the writer is merely reporting Khemka’s exact words. Choosing to highlight a word or a phrase might also present it out of context, which again runs the risk of misinterpretation.

A quote, suitably enclosed in quotation marks, can also be used as a headline. A quote can make the entire headline or be part of it as long as it meets the criteria you would otherwise apply to headlines. For instance: “We’ll destroy our nukes,” say world leaders. That would make a great headline.

A quote, again within quotation marks, can be used at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Some articles can also be begun or ended with a quote. What is important is that it is properly attributed. A recent New York Times article ended with a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love: In a rare moment of unguarded pride, she permits herself a grin. “Dude, I crushed it.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/22/magazine/eat-pray-love-get-rich-write-a-novel-no-one-expects.html?pagewanted=7&_r=0&src=me)

A paragraph can have more than one quote, from the same individual or from different ones, as long as they are properly attributed. Ideally a paragraph develops one idea and a new idea is developed in another paragraph. So, if using more than one quote in a paragraph, ideally they must all support the same idea.

To exonerate yourself from mistakes made by the person you are quoting use sic within square brackets. For instance: The editor said, “It was a grieving [sic] error.” Sic is derived from Latin and is used to indicate that you know the word is wrong but are reproducing it as is.

As dictated by the style guide

One of the uses of quotation marks, double or single, is to enclose the titles of books, poems, articles, essays, etc. However, this usage is dictated by style guides.

The Associated Press style guide, which is what a lot of newspapers refer to, advocates quotation marks “around the titles of books, songs, television shows, computer games, poems, lectures, speeches and works of art” but not for “the names of magazine, newspapers, the Bible or books that are catalogues of reference materials” (as cited on http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/735/02/). However, here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style apparently says, “When quoted in text or listed in a bibliography, titles of books, journals, plays, and other freestanding works are italicized; titles of articles, chapters, and other shorter works are set in roman and enclosed in quotation marks” (as cited on http://data.grammarbook.com/blog/quotation-marks/titles-of-books-plays-articles-etc-underline-italicize-use-quotation-marks/). Strunk and White’s Elements of Style also seems to follow the same principle (http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk2.html).

It makes sense then to ascertain what style guide is followed by your organisation. If you freelance or write blogs, pick a style guide and then follow it diligently.

Punctuating in tandem    

There are a few punctuation rules to bear in mind when using quotation marks. If you are quoting from the beginning of a sentence, then you start with a capital letter; if you begin your quote from somewhere in the middle, then use the lower case. If you are splitting the quote to add an attribution in the middle, then capitalisation depends on how you split the quote.

For instance, “I am tired, really tired. I cannot do this anymore,” the writer said.

This can either be split as “I am tired,” the writer said, “really tired. I cannot do this anymore.”

Or “I am tired, really tired,” the writer said. “I cannot do this anymore.”

But not “I am tired,” the writer said. “Really tired. I cannot do this anymore.”

If your writing has a dialogue, paragraph breaks are used to indicate change in speakers.

“Nice to see you, Julius.”

“That’s Commander Root to you.”

 “Commander now. I heard that. Clerical error, was it?”

From Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

If your quotation incorporates multiple paragraphs, you add closing quotation marks at the end of only the last paragraph but you need opening quotation marks at the beginning of each. If your quote is rather long or if you would like to quote only certain sections, you can employ ellipsis (…). For instance if you were quoting the above but didn’t want to include it in entirety, you could do this: I refer to the passage from Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl “Nice to… error, was it?” Only remember that an ellipsis is nearly always only three dots and four only if you are incorporating the full stop at the end of a quoted sentence.

What is the rule for commas and periods with regard to quotation marks? Like color/colour and organize/organise, the British and the Americans don’t seem to see eye to eye on this question either. The Americans follow the KISS principle and thus, all commas and periods are included within quotation marks. However, the British believe in deciding case-by-case. For punctuation marks other than the periods and commas, the Americans seem willing to follow this rule as well. So, the American style would be: I just finished reading Eoin Colfer’s “Artemis Fowl.” The British would say: I just finished reading Eoin Colfer’s “Artemis Fowl”. But both would agree on this placement of the question mark: Have you read Eoin Colfer’s “Artemis Fowl”?

Then, there is the rule with single quotes, which the Americans and British again disagree on, making the life of an editor working on both kinds of copy unnecessarily complicated. The Americans use the single quote to denote a quotation within a quotation; so, the rule is “ ‘’ ”. The British follow the exact opposite practice: ‘ “” ’, double quotation marks to indicate a quote within a quote. For instance, in the American style, it would be: “Why would you say ‘I am tired’ if you don’t mean it?” The British, on the other hand, would say: ‘Why would you say “I am tired” if you don’t mean it?’

Frankly, that was a tiring exposition.


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