Wick Communications

‘… them other guys.’

In Writing techniques on March 31, 2011 at 4:33 pm

I confess that I had never heard of Boo Weekley before reading this Wall Street Journal story. I now know that he is an up-and-coming pro golfer from the panhandle of Florida.

The story isn’t about Boo, exactly, but rather the proliferation of new “personalities” on the pro golf tour these days. I don’t know whether reporter John Paul Newport was attempting to show that Weekley was colorful by using the following quote or whether he merely felt compelled to give an honest depiction of what the man said. But when Newport asked Weekley about whether participates in traditional Tuesday off-the-books fun matches with with other golfers or concentrates on his game during his practice rounds, Weekley is quoted as saying:

“The course is who I’m competing against, not them other guys, and the practice rounds is the only time I got to learn it.”

That’s pretty subtle, I know. But I’m wondering whether you would have cleaned up Boo’s boo-boo. Would you have written it more like this?

“The course is what I’m competing against, not the other golfers, and the practice round is the only time I have to learn it.” …

I think many of us in the business have struggled over the years over whether to clean up quotes a bit. On the one hand, you don’t want to make your sources seem stupid. After all, you fairly begged the guy to talk to you off the cuff, without benefit of a dictionary and stylebook. Don’t you owe it to him to correct his grammar?

Ah, I hear you. But that’s what the man said. In order to be truthful to readers, I have to use direct quotes – not what I wish the man had said.

I think the right answer may be somewhere in the middle and I expect some of you to disagree. I can’t imagine cleaning up the president’s or the mayor’s speech. And if the English teacher you quoted for the story on writing habits of today’s teens doesn’t know how to use proper grammar, then, well, that is part of the story to my mind.

But what if you are quoting someone who isn’t paid to be a public speaker or a grammarian? What if you are quoting someone for whom English is a second language? What if you are quoting a grieving mother who has just learned that her daughter has died? Is it fair to quote someone like that word for word?

I think it’s tricky and would advise that, when in doubt, it’s probably better to paraphrase. I would also advise against using someone’s colloquialisms to make him seem a bit, shall we say, less than college material. I think Newport did that with Weekley, perhaps unwittingly.

I’m interested in hearing what you think.

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  1. I wonder if you cleaned it up for Boo, and them people heard him speaking on a TV sports wrap up, and they’d wonder why he sounds so different in print?

  2. I think that’s a good point, Deb. And that is an argument for not cleaning up the quotes. You don’t want to make a source sound different than readers know him to be.

  3. Clay, your point of paraphrasing hits the mark. Is the quote that important or dramatic? Write around it. Your source will sound better and you don’t run the risk of being accused of altering what was said.

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