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“Never, ever clean up a quote?” Columnists and writers discuss an age-old issue

Last week’s suggestion #36 on sportswriting went like this: "Never quote in dialect and never quote bad grammar, save in the rare instance when those matters are integral to the story. By cleaning up the quotes – yes, I am a libertarian on quotes – you serve truth by making it clear what the subject has said and you serve the reader by making the sentence read more easily."

That thought provoked one of America’s best writers, my pal Charles P. Pierce, who appended a reply to the column:

"Gotta disagree strongly on one, Dave. Never, EVER clean up a quote. Never. Not once. Ever. A subject’s colloquialisms — vocabulary, or grammar — can be as revealing as anything else. And cleaning up quotes is a serious gateway drug to those wonderful quotes — from writers you and I can both name — that seem to belie the athlete’s obvious intellectual shortcomings. Not once. Never."

I love when theories collide. Before we’re done today, we’ll hear debate from a Pulitzer Prize winner and from one of the great sports columnists of our time. Charlie will also make another appearance.

Let’s begin with my insistence, in seeming contradiction of the available evidence, that Charlie and I are really on the same page. We both want the truth. We both want the quotes to serve that truth. And we both hold in high regard the traditional values of journalism.

I can reconcile our apparent difference because of those words "available evidence." The only pieces of evidence in this space last week were our superficial, shorthand answers to a question that has prompted profound and prolonged debate among journalists: Must the words between the quote marks be only words actually spoken? That question seems straightforward enough, but in fact it is so full of nuance that neither my quick take nor Charlie’s response could possibly be a complete answer.

The first problem is knowing what a subject "actually" said. I can’t speak for Charlie, or indeed for anyone else in sportswriting, but my note-taking is highly suspect. My handwriting was never much good in hurried, harried circumstances and it has deteriorated over time and millions of scribbled words. If I am able to record seven consecutive words in readable script, that’s a victory. After that, it gets hairy. By the time I’ve scratched down those seven words, I’ve missed the next sentence. If that sentence sounded interesting to my distracted ear, I might remember two or three words of it. I probably won’t even hear the third sentence, after which I ask a stupid question only to slow down the interview. The inconvenient truth is, my chance of getting down the "actual" words diminishes with each note taken.

A tape recorder is the answer, and I use one more often now than ever, but I do it reluctantly and with trepidation. It changes the dynamic of conversation; some people are intimidated, others perform. Second, and almost as critical in my antipathy to taping, I am a technophobe. Batteries die. Tape breaks. And all those buttons! I don’t trust the machinery, including the operator who has taped conversations without putting in a tape. Even when recording, I do the belt-and-suspenders thing of taking notes. I am told that a digital recorder ends those worries. It’s so small as to be unobtrusive, it’s one button, no tape, just magic. We’ll see.


Still, even when taping, I will clean up a quote. This is heresy among the high-church journalists who hold that quotes are not to be changed in any way. They believe readers expect that words between quotation marks are only words spoken by the subject. That expectation is entirely reasonable – and entirely impractical. Aside from the problem of identifying the "actual" words, there are the problems of clarity and fairness on which I yield the floor to the Pulitzer winner.

Two years ago, Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post did a online chat that included ruminations on this subject. He calls a quote a "well intentioned approximation." He asked, if a man sneezed during a quote, should that be in the quote? 

"Obviously not," Weingarten said. "How about if he is a person who says ‘uh’ every few seconds? We putting that in? No, right? Well, ‘uh,’ is really part of someone’s speech pattern, isn’t it? Can an argument be made it belongs in an ‘exact’ quote? Maybe you make that argument, if you’re an idiot. But we’ve already entered a touchy area. We are changing quotes with impunity, aren’t we? We’re deciding what’s part of the quote and what isn’t.

"Imagine a man who says, about the graduation of his daughter, ‘I’m bursting inside because I have such high expectorations for this darling girl, this center of my life.’ Are we going to quote that man verbatim, exposing him to complete ridicule for something as simple as a blurted word-misuse? If we did, that’s all anyone would remember about that quote. Of course we’re not going to do that. A complete purist would argue that you’d have to mess around with the sentence: ‘I have such high [expectations] .’ But you know what? That raises an odd question in the reader’s mind – what did he say? What word did he use? Was it a epithet of some sort? It stops you. So, I change that. I know for one hundred percent certain what word that man MEANT to use. I just change it. I have no guilt about that."

Weingarten makes an important distinction about the subject who is quoted. "Why correct his grammar? Here’s why: When a non-famous person is quoted, his quote is out there in the paper, naked. We do not get to see how he is dressed or how he conducts himself, so we can judge him on things other than the words he speaks. We have only the words. And if those words are ungrammatical or imprecise, very often, in the mind of the reader, that’s the purpose of the quote. That’s what the reader will notice, not the import of what he is saying. Consider the proud father having high expectorations for his daughter. It’s just not fair."

So he’d fix it up for the excited dad.

In contrast, he would give no such help to Clinton Portis, the Washington Redskins running back whose words became a point of journalistic controversy two years ago.

Here’s what Portis said in the locker room one day:

"I don’t know how nobody feel, I don’t know what nobody think, I don’t know what nobody doing, the only thing I know is what is going on in Clinton Portis’s life."

That quote appeared in The Washington Post as:

"I don’t know how anybody feels, I don’t know what anybody thinks, I don’t know what anybody is doing, the only thing I know is what is going on in Clinton Portis’s life."

Weingarten conducted a poll asking readers if the quote should have been changed to make it grammatical. Of 3,634 voters, 79 percent voted to keep it as Portis said it. Weingarten agreed: "This is a celeb, speaking before cameras and microphones, quite aware of what he sounded like, and speaking in a familiar locker room patois."

Two years after these declarations, does Weingarten hold the same views?

"Oh, definitely," he said in an e-mail. "I stand behind every word."

Three big thoughts from Weingarten’s essay:

1. The responsibility to quote people correctly "exists side by side with other responsibility, and sometimes bumps up against them a little bit. One is being fair to people. Another is writing in an engaging, concise manner that doesn’t confuse people."

2. "There is truth, and there is strict adherence to absolute fact. The first is very important. The second, in many cases, is inconsequential."

3. "The spoken word is not like the written word. There are fits and starts and digressions, and you can’t hold the first up to the standards of the second."

John Schulian, now a TV producer and writer, once a great sports columnist in Philadelphia and Chicago, confesses to scribbling notes so near indecipherable that he would "scurry back to my hotel room or at least to a place with a flat surface and a little quiet and re-copy everything more legibly while I still had my subject’s voice in my head."

"As for cleaning up quotes, " he said in an e-mail, "I hate to tangle with Charlie Pierce, who is my idea of a world class sports writer, but I plead guilty to doing it. A lot of times I probably edited as I was taking notes; the rest of the time I did it as I was writing. Nothing major, just untangling a mangled sentence or fixing subject-verb agreement. And I didn’t do it all the time. If garbled syntax was the hallmark of my subject, I’d go with the raw material."

Schulian never used a tape recorder, "probably because I was afraid I wasn’t smart enough to push the right buttons. But I can certainly tell when a sports writer uses a tape recorder now, because his/her quotes are so long and winding and ungrammatical and space-consuming that I wish he/she hadn’t pushed the right button. You’re not a writer when you operate that way. You’re a transcriptionist for the inarticulate. And that ain’t what my mama raised me to be."

I’m with Weingarten and Schulian. I spelled it out a little more in an e-mail to Charlie: "I, too, was a literalist and am more often than not to this day. If I didn’t get the quote fully, I don’t make it full. But if in listening to the tape — when I tape, for long stuff — the quote is full of duhs and uhs and backtracking and circumlocutions that obscure and hide the quote in question, I will delete the duhs and uhs and untangle the brush to reveal the quote. I do that rather than litter the landscape with ellipses, parentheses, and brackets indicating the words I chose to leave out. I do this to keep the quote rather than turn it into exposition." There is this, too: If the quote is from a bit player and is only testimony to what happened, I scrub it up for clarity.. If the quote is from the primary character in the story, I leave it alone because it is critical to the reader’s understanding of the character and thus critical to the truth of the story.

Charlie answered: "If it were up to me, I’d even leave in the f-bombs." He believes that "someone’s way of speaking is an ineffable part of who that person is. You don’t truly capture, say, Larry Bird if you untangle his syntax for him." More important, he also would lead writers away from temptation. Change a word here, a word there, and pretty soon a writer can fall into the darkness the enveloped Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, and Stephen Glass.

In the end, all of us – Pierce, Schulian, and me – are correct, though none of us needs to make up a rule governing the use of quotes. The best rule already exists. It’s the one that allows us to break all the other rules if necessary: Tell the truth.

Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295
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