Taking out, putting in

It’s not often that punctuation makes news. But in an Oct. 2 article about the White House whistleblower, The Washington Post noted certain irregularities in the now-infamous Ukraine call:

Current and former U.S. officials studying the document pointed to several elements that, they say, indicate that the document may have been handled in an unusual way.

Those include the use of ellipses — punctuation indicating that information has been deleted for clarity or other reasons — that traditionally have not appeared in summaries of presidential calls with foreign leaders . . .

That’s right! That’s what ellipsis — . . . , spoken as dot dot dot — means: something has been deleted. (Note the way I used it above to indicate that I was cutting off the quoted text before the end. Also note that ellipsis is the singular, ellipses — multiple uses of ellipsis — plural.)

Academics, who often quote from long texts, use ellipses to zero in on the most relevant passages. (Why make academic writing any more boring than it already is?) In journalism, though, we prefer not to. If you’re quoting only part of a text, ellipses may be useful to let your editors know you’ve deleted something. But they will probably choose a different way to render it for publication.

Here’s a classic example from a first-semester student this fall:

“You can play the piano by itself and it sounds beautiful (…) it’s something I always wanted to learn,” says Anmy, “and it saved me during difficult times.”

Better and smoother: move the attribution to where the omission was. (In multisentence quotes, we usually put the attribution after the first complete thought.)

“You can play the piano by itself and it sounds beautiful,” says Anmy. “It’s something I always wanted to learn, and it saved me during difficult times.”

Another first-semester student wrote:

Chen also said she didn’t have any interest in Korean traditional music per se and hadn’t expected much from Kim So Ra’s performance,  “. . . but now Korean traditional rhythms keep lingering in my ears forever.”

Instead of indicating the omission, journalists jump right into the quote:

Chen also said she didn’t have any interest in Korean traditional music per se and hadn’t expected much from Kim So Ra’s performance,  “but now Korean traditional rhythms keep lingering in my ears forever.”

Journalists also tend not to use ellipses for another purpose noted by The Post:

Shortly after the document’s release last week, a White House official had said that the ellipses did not indicate missing words but referred to “a trailing off of a voice or pause,” and called it standard practice for records of presidential phone calls.

A social journalism student quoted a source:

The act of going onstage and exploring this place, like, putting oneself physically in a conflict situation and leaving it… It is a physical activity.”

That part before the ellipsis is a sentence fragment, an incomplete thought. It sounds as if the speaker started one sentence, then, before finishing it, started another. We don’t speak in punctuation, especially in casual conversation; when the speech is quoted as text, it needs to be added. Since English frowns on the noun + comma + pronoun construction permitted in some languages (as in Your grades, they are not so good this semester), I would make this fragment a sort of appositive connected with a dash, which indicates a break in thought:

The act of going onstage and exploring this place, like, putting oneself physically in a conflict situation and leaving it — it is a physical activity.”

The opposite of ellipsis is bracketing — inserting material, generally into a quote, to explain or clarify, using [ and ]. Academics love brackets, too, but again, journalists should not.

Why? Because direct quotes are the lifeblood of our writing. What falls between quotation marks is understood to represent the exact words of a speaker or text, so we don’t want to insert our interpretations, even in parentheses or brackets. We have better ways to clarify those quotes — sometimes by paraphrasing, sometimes by using partial quotes.

From that student writing about Korean music:

“[Kim So Ra] is not the only Korean traditional musician we invited,” says Shade Adeyemo, a coordinator of David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. 

Adeyemo probably said she. Instead of putting words in a speaker’s mouth, take the bracketed material out of quotation marks and continue with a partial quote:

Kim So Ra “is not the only Korean traditional musician we invited,” says Shade Adeyemo, a coordinator of David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. 

Similarly, from a third-semester student:

“[Netflix is] obviously spending enormous amounts of content already,” said Forrester analyst Jim Nail.

Instead:

Netflix is “obviously spending enormous amounts of content already,” said Forrester analyst Jim Nail.

An alumna wrote in a book proposal, referring to the art of Mexican song:

The melody is very simple, very serious. And it is profound and heavy, even when [the singer] says ‘Drink that bottle.’ ”

In this case, the quote was a translation, which doesn’t have to be word for word as long as the speaker’s intended meaning is not changed. So it’s perfectly legitimate to clean it up. In this case, if the speaker meant a specific singer, I would say she or he; if singers in general. simply delete the brackets around the singer.

Another third-semester student wrote:

They are really thinking about the need for high-quality data around ESG [Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance] metrics in their evaluation of companies.”

I very much doubt that the speaker, a vice president of a major corporation, said the words “Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance.” (If he did, I would set them off in dashes.) Rather, he would have assumed his audience knew what he meant. But journalists need to translate for the general reading public. Here’s a better way:

“They are really thinking about the need for high-quality data around ESG metrics in their evaluation of companies,” he said, referring to Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance.

The change is subtle, and possibly noticeable only to grammar nerds, but it does keep the quotation pure. And that’s the point.

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