Quotus Interruptus

'What … did (he) say?’

For weeks before Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees reached 3,000 career hits, he had been saying he didn’t feel any pressure to make that milestone.

But after he had done it, he ’fessed up. Here’s how USA Today reported it:

I’ve been lying to (the news media) for a long time saying I wasn’t nervous and there was no pressure. … I felt a lot of pressure to do it here while we’re at home.

And here’s how The New York Times reported it:

”I’ve been lying to you guys for a long time, saying I wasn’t nervous and there’s no pressure,” he said to reporters. “There was a lot of pressure to do it here.”

So just what did Jeter say?

As a well-known sportscaster said, let’s go to the videotape. Here’s what Jeter actually said:

I’ve been lying to you guys for a long time, saying I wasn’t nervous and there’s no pressure. There was a lot of pressure to do it here.

A few minutes later, he said:

There was a lot of pressure to do it here while we’re at home, so I have been lying to you for quite some time.

USA Today, in effect, edited Jeter’s quote, paraphrasing “you guys” as “the news media.” Then the writer or editor inserted an ellipsis, to indicate that some stuff was left out.

But parentheses (or brackets) and ellipses in quotations divert readers’ attention from the quote itself, and lead many to wonder what you had to change and why. With ellipses, many readers may wonder “what are they not telling me?” And invariably, many will assume you excised swearing or other inappropriate content, even when you didn’t.

While an ellipsis indicates that something was left out, parentheses in quotes aren’t so clear. As we’ve seen in the USA Today example, they can be used to paraphrase something. They also can be used to add explanatory information, as the Daily News did with a Jeter quote:

“I’ve been lying to you guys a lot (about the pressure) for quite a long time,” Jeter admitted.

And they also can be used to swap just one word for another, to make it grammatical or (in theory) clearer, as in this Daily News quote from Yankee pitcher David Robertson:

“The last thing I wanted to do was lose the game, especially with everything (Jeter) had done,” Robertson said.

So how’s a reader to know whether something has been paraphrased, added, or replaced? And if the reader is wondering which it is, the reader is no longer digesting the quote.

It can get out of hand, as in this from the St. Petersburg Times, quoting Rays manager Joe Maddon on all the withdrawals from the All Star Game:

“(Closer Mariano) Rivera pitched (Saturday), he’s not pitching in the game; (SS Derek) Jeter played, he’s not playing in the game,” Maddon said.

So much of that quote is not part of the quote at all, what purpose do the quotation marks serve?

There’s a good rule of thumb: If a quote needs to be edited to make it a good quote, it’s not a good quote.

The solutions are many. One is to decide whether you need to edit the quote at all. (Is anyone really going to misunderstand that Robertson meant “Jeter” when he said “he”?) Maybe you can use only the important part of the quote—”I’ve been lying to you guys a lot”—and then do the explanation outside the quotation marks, the way The Times did above. If the quote introduces someone not yet mentioned, introduce the person before the quote, or after.

Much of the time, the parentheses are right at the beginning or end of a quote, so the fix is incredibly easy:

ORIGINAL: “I felt like when I got called up (from the minors),” he said.

FIX: “I felt like when I got called up” from the minors, he said.

ORIGINAL: “[Jeter] didn’t forget who helped him or who came up with him or who is his friend.”

FIX: Jeter “didn’t forget who helped him or who came up with him or who is his friend.”

Using parentheses or ellipses in quotes is lazy, messy housekeeping, occasionally even deceptive. In these days when everything is on YouTube, you don’t want your readers to stop trusting you because you edited someone’s quote, especially when your readers can hear the quote for themselves.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,