On Quoting Well and Quoting Right

QUOTING is an art. You’re not simply calling upon the inverted commas, encasing a quote within, and saying, “Here you go!” Consider the little intricacies: how to introduce your quote, how much to quote, or how to break up a long quotation and interpose it with an attributive verb. Then there’s punctuation: besides the colon and comma, there are also brackets. The more tools, the merrier, and the more creative decisions one has to make.

Now, let’s say you decide to open an essay with a quote, which, by the way, is a style of opening used so often that it is considered, in some circles, “old hat”—according to the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, the writing school I attend. But for the sake of showing how a quote opening can improve with some rearrangement of words, let’s go ahead and play “old hat.” Notice how Mark Twain’s wisdom looks better when it is split then spliced:

OK:
Mark Twain once said: “Of all the creatures that were made, man is the most detestable.”

“Of all the creatures that were made, man is the most detestable,” observed Mark Twain.

“Of all the creatures that were made, man is the most detestable.” That is what Mark Twain once said.

Better: 
“Of all the creatures that were made,” observed Mark Twain, “man is the most detestable.”

Here’s some advice from William Zinsser, writer, teacher, and author of On Writing Well:

When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it. Don’t lead to it with a vapid phrase saying what the man said.

BAD: Mr. Smith said that he liked to “go downtown once a week and have lunch with some of my old friends.”

GOOD: “I usually like to go downtown once a week,” Mr. Smith said, “and have lunch with some of my old friends.”

The second sentence has vitality, the first one is dead. Nothing is deader than to start a sentence with a “Mr. Smith said” construction—it’s where many readers stop reading.

Which is exactly what The Straits Times did in its 10 May 2015 article, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat explains delay in new junior college to parents at dialogue:

Said Mr Heng on Sunday: “I’m not saying that it is ideal when you have a delay, but the truth of the matter is there will be, in life, unforeseen circumstances and we’ll get the ministry to explain in greater detail what are the unforeseen circumstances.” “The MOE will communicate further with the parents,” he told reporters afterwards.

This technically clumsy paragraph, with its the two back-to-back quotes, can be improved like so:

“I’m not saying that it is ideal when you have a delay,” said Mr. Heng, “but there will be unforeseen circumstances in life. We’ll get the ministry to explain in greater detail what these are.”

“The MOE will communicate further with the parents,” he added, in a press briefing after the event.

I have written a second paragraph then struck it out to make two points: one, the quote could be better presented with a “he added” line in a separate paragraph; two, this paragraph feels redundant because it echoes the line just before. Notice also I polished Mr. Heng’s verbatim quote in three places, and while I’m at this, watch how I’m using brackets to encase quotes:

  1. I slashed unnecessary verbiage (“the truth of the matter is”)
  2. I fixed a little grammar (from “what are these unforeseen circumstances” to “what these are”)
  3. I tweaked for rhythm (from “there will, in life, be unforeseen circumstances” to “there will be unforeseen circumstances in life”)

If you’re outraged that I’ve tampered with Mr. Heng’s words, allow me to explain after I share my next example, yet another inelegant paragraph from the same article:

One was to get every facility ready and “start only when we’re ready in 2020 because we must not take any risk that the building may not be completed in time. Therefore we don’t want to disappoint students, parents …” he said. The other was to say, “let’s get going, as long as students benefit, and let’s focus on the essence of the programme,” he said.

I would drop the ellipsis at the end of the quote. It seems to mock the government official—there he goes again, that rambler with his et ceteras. It’s also technically sloppy. I have never seen an ellipsis used in this way before in a news article. Let’s rework it:

One was to get every facility ready and to start only when they are ready in 2020. “We must not risk having the building not completed in time,” he said. “Because we don’t want to disappoint students and parents.”

The other was to say, “Let’s get going, as long as students benefit, and let’s focus on the essence of the programme.”

I have split the paragraph in two, so that the parallel structure of “One was to get” in the first paragraph is set up nicely against “The other was to say” in the second. Notice my quote starts only at the second sentence rather than mid-way through the first. This looks and reads better. Two more changes: in the second paragraph, “Let’s” should rightly begin with a capitalized L not a small l; in the first paragraph, I changed “Therefore” to “Because”—it seems to improve the logic.

Now, you might scream, “No, you can’t do that,” to which I’d say: Yes and no. Quoting verbatim is the rule of thumb, but when the words trail off, lack structure and logic, as they often happen in speech, it is the writer’s responsibility to clean up the language. By doing so, he’s not only fulfilling his duty to the reader, but the person being interviewed or quoted.

So dear reader, the next time you want to quote, consider how best to capture a quotation, rather than plonking it in your text, willy-nilly. The best way to improve your skills at quoting is to read high-quality journalism, or books (especially non-fiction), with a more intelligent eye and ear. Watch how great writers do it and catch the rhythm of their lines.

***
We invite you to our writing workshop,“How to Quote, When to Quote (and When Not to)” in June. We have a track for Literature students, and another for English Language students. 

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