Chapter 8: Quotes

In this chapter, we discuss what quotes are, why they are necessary and how to use them properly. In the following chapter, we also discuss the correct ways of attributing quotes and other information to people.

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A quote is the written form of the words which people have spoken. Occasionally it will also apply to words they have written down, perhaps in a book or a press release. In print journalism, quotes are shown surrounded by quotation marks, either single (‘) or double ("). These are sometimes called inverted commas. The alternative to using a quote is to rewrite the sentence into what we call reported speech. We will discuss how to move between quotes and reported speech later in this chapter.

Quotes should not be used on radio, which should broadcast the words in the spoken form, sometimes called audio. Television journalists can use quotes shown as text on the screen.

Attribution is stating who made the quote or gave the information. The most common form of attribution uses the verb to say. Always say who is speaking. In America, attribution is called the tag. We discuss attribution in greater detail in the following chapter.

Why use quotes?

There are three main reasons why you should use quotes in print journalism:

  • If you repeat the exact words which people themselves used you will reduce the risk of misreporting what they say.
  • When we give a person's exact words our readers can see both the ideas and the way they were presented.
  • People often use lively language when they speak. Quotes allow you to put that lively language directly into your story.

let people speakRemember too that, as a journalist, you are simply the channel through which people with something to say speak to people who want to know what they said. The best way of keeping the channel clear is to let people tell things in their own way. One of the golden rules of journalism is: Let people speak for themselves. Use quotes.

In print we hear people's voices through quotes, in broadcasting the voices are heard in the form of audio or actuality.

Because radio journalists should avoid quotes altogether, and television journalists should use them as graphics on the screen, this chapter will concentrate on using quotes in the print media.

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When to use quotes

Quotes serve many useful purposes in print journalism but they cannot be used everywhere in your story. You will make your writing more effective if you obey the following rules.

Never start a news story with a quote

The most important reason for not starting a story with a quote is that a quote itself seldom shows the news value of your story. It is your task as a journalist to tell the reader what is news. You should tell them what is new, unusual, interesting or significant about the information you present. Only when you have told them what is news should you use a quote to support your intro.

A standard intro in reported speech is the most effective method of expressing an idea. Very few people speak well enough to say in one sentence what a good journalist can compress into a well-written intro.

Starting a news story with a quote produces awkward punctuation. By putting words inside quotation marks, you give readers an extra obstacle to overcome just at the time when you are trying to grab their attention.

Beginning with a quote also means that your readers see the quote before they know who has said it. How can they judge the importance of the quote without knowing the speaker?
A quote can often be most effective following straight after a hard news intro. See how effective a short quote becomes when it follows a short, sharp intro:

The Minister for Finance, Mr Joe Wau, yesterday attacked laziness in the public service.
"Government employees must get off their backsides and work," he told a lunchtime meeting of senior department heads.

Quotes in the rest of the story

If you are going to quote a speech or a personal interview, never leave the first quote later than the third or fourth paragraph of the story. If you cannot find a quote strong enough to go that high, you should question the value of covering the speech or doing the interview in the first place.

One of the problems faced by many journalists is that their shorthand - or their memory - is not good enough to get a full and accurate note of what a person says. So they take the easy way out and write everything in reported speech. It is your task to make sure that you get an accurate note of what is said, even to the extent of asking the speaker to repeat it. Modern journalists can, of course, use tape recorders to make an exact record of what a person says. However, you must still take care in transcribing your quotes into your story. (See Chapter 16: Interviewing.)

There is, of course, no excuse for making up a quote. That is one of the greatest sins a journalist can commit. It destroys your integrity and risks landing both you and your employer in an expensive action for defamation. Don't do it.

Quotes in features

One of the few places where a journalist can occasionally begin a story with a quote is in writing features - and then only in special cases.

The most common use among young journalists is what one might call the sound effect quote, where the quotation is used to create an atmosphere for the feature. The following introduction to a feature begins with a quote especially to grab the reader's attention:

"Atten...shun!"
The drill sergeant's voice rings out over the new Bomana parade ground.

But be warned, this type of intro cannot be used often as it rapidly loses its impact and becomes irritating to the regular reader.

As a rule, do not start stories with quotes until you reach a level of experience when they earn their place through artistic merit and not because of their novelty. (See Chapter 50: Features.)

How often should you use quotes?

Although quotes bring a story alive, it is still possible to kill a good story by carelessness, particularly over-repetition. It is like smothering a meal with sauce, drowning the taste of the meat. Each quote must earn its place in the story. Do not put in strings of quotes simply because you have them in your notebook.

Alternate quotes and reported speech, choosing those quotes which are especially strong and rewriting in reported speech those which are either too complicated or too long. Just because someone said something does not mean that they have expressed themselves well or clearly. If the quote is likely to confuse your readers or spoil the rest of the story, turn the words into reported speech. As we said earlier, very few people are able to compress ideas into sentences better than a good journalist can.

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Writing quotes

Many new journalists are afraid of using quotes because they believe that the language and punctuation is complicated. In fact, there are some simple rules which, if followed, can make quotes as easy to use as any other kind of sentence.

Punctuation

Most newspapers adopt a standard style when punctuating. Two simple phrases will act as a reminder of how to punctuate quotes. (For simplicity, we use the term 'tag' for the attribution of the person who said the words and 'caps' as a shortform for 'capital letters'.)

When the attribution (the tag) is at the beginning of the quotation, the order is:

TAG, COLON, QUOTES, CAPS.

Look at the following sentence:

He said: "It is not something I expected."

See how the punctuation follows our rule:

He said(tag) :(colon) "(quotes) I(caps)t ...

When the tag is at the end of the quotation, the order is:

COMMA, QUOTES, TAG, POINT

as in the following sentence:

"It is not something I expected," he said.

Again, we can see the pattern in the sentence:

... expected,(comma) "(quotes) he said (tag).(point)

Notice that full stops (points), commas, question marks and exclamation marks always go inside the quotes. When you have a quote within a quote, use a single inverted comma for the inside quotation. If both end in the same place, put the comma, full stop or similar punctuation mark within the single inverted comma:

Sgt Ovea said: "I told him, `You are your own worst enemy.'"

You should always start a new paragraph for a direct quote. If you have started a quote and continue to quote in the next paragraph, you do not need to close the quotes before going on to the next par, though you should start the new paragraph with inverted commas. See how we leave out the quotation mark after the first paragraph but include it at the beginning of the second:

Mr Raukele said: "It is not something I ever expected to happen in this country in my lifetime.
"I have to admit that it came as a complete surprise."

Whenever you introduce a new speaker, put the tag before the quote, giving the speaker's title as well. This is particularly important when you are changing from one speaker to another. If you quote a new speaker and fail to put his tag at the beginning, the reader will assume that the first speaker is still being quoted:

RIGHT:
Businessman Mr Tom Avua said that trade was lower than last year.           
His partner, Mr Michael Mu, added: "I may have to sell my home to pay off the outstanding debts to the bank."
WRONG:
Businessman Mr Tom Avua said that trade was lower than last year.           
"I may have to sell my home to pay off the outstanding debts to the bank," said his partner, Mr Michael Mu.

Notice from the example above that it is possible to change the usual "somebody said" order of the tag to "said somebody" order. This becomes necessary when the tag has a long identifier, so that you do not separate the verb "said" too far from the actual quotation:

RIGHT:
"It is a load of rubbish," said Mr Peter Kuman, vice-president of the Retail Traders Association and its regional representative on the PNG Chamber of Commerce.
WRONG:
"It is a load of rubbish," Mr Peter Kuman, vice-president of the Retail Traders Association and its regional representative on the PNG Chamber of Commerce, said.

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Partial and incomplete quotes

Although you may not be able to write fast or make notes in shorthand, you may still have notes of particular phrases the speaker used. This is when you might be tempted to use partial or incomplete quotes. These are quotes which do not make full sentences.

There is seldom any excuse for using partial quotes, whether it is in an intro or in the main body of the story. The main exception is when the words you are quoting are slang, such as "dead loss", "the bee's knees", "Star Wars" or "junket", as in the following example:

The Prime Minister Mr Galea yesterday defended his European tour, saying it was not a "junket".
"The trip was very successful, particularly in Germany," he said.

If you do use a partial quote in the intro, you must give the full quote later in the story, otherwise the reader may believe that it is you using slang.

Some bad journalists use quotation marks around words or phrases which they think might be defamatory. They mistakenly believe that, by showing that the words were said by someone else, they themselves will not be sued for defamation. This is not so. If you use defamatory words, you can be sued, whether they were your words or someone else's, whether or not they were in quotes (See Chapters 69 and 70 on Defamation).

Do not put individual words or phrases in quotation marks simply because someone else said them first. Most descriptive words can stand by themselves, without the support of quotation marks. For example, the minister may have said in an interview: "The job ahead will be difficult." If you put that into reported speech, it would be wrong to choose only the word difficult for partial quoting:

RIGHT:
The minister said the job ahead would be difficult.
WRONG:
The minister said the job ahead would be "difficult".

Incomplete quotes are slightly different to partial quotes. Incomplete quotes are full sentence quotes with some words left out. They can be used if it is made clear that you have omitted some words or phrases without altering the essential meaning of the sentence. This should not be done because you failed to make a note of the whole sentence, only if the part you want to cut is either insignificant or unconnected. You should type three dots (called ellipses) in place of the missing word or phrase. For example, we may not want to use all of the words quoted in the following sentence:

"Carelessness, as many people before me have argued, is the curse of clear writing," he said.

so we rewrite it as:

"Carelessness ... is the curse of clear writing," he said.

Sometimes you may need to use a strong quote which does not actually contain all the information your reader needs to make sense of the sentence. This can happen because the person is speaking about something he or she does not mention in the actual quote itself. In such cases you can insert the missing fact - often a name or a title - in square brackets - within the quote to show what you have done For example, the Finance Minister might be speaking in Parliament about the May Budget but did not use the actual title in the sentence you want to quote:

"I have repeated a thousand times, it will be ready when it is ready and not a moment before."

To make sense for your readers, you can use the quote by inserting the words "the May Budget" in square brackets:

The Finance Minister told the Opposition: "I have repeated a thousand times, [the May Budget] will be ready when it's ready and not a moment before."

Whether you use a full quote, a partial quote or an incomplete quote, you must not take it out of context. The most common complaint against journalists - after that of misquoting itself - is the accusation that the reporter took the statement out of context.

A journalist might be tempted to quote someone as saying: "I entirely agree that the plans are good" when, in fact, what he said was "I entirely agree that the plans are good, but they are unworkable and unsuitable." That is bad journalism.

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Scare quotes

Scare quotes are words or short phrases which are placed between quotation marks when they really do not belong. Usually, the writer is trying to add stress to the words or to suggest something other than their obvious meaning.

Scare quotes are usually unnecessary and should only be used if you are confident they are required. As discussed above, there are usually better ways of using partial quotes.

The simplest reason for scare quotes is to add emphasis, which in literature is normally done by the use of italics. In news reporting, however, this usage can cause confusion or be misleading. Unless the words are actually quotes which can be attributed to a person, avoid scare quotes for emphasis.

BAD:
The priest said he would "never" marry a divorced person in his church.
BETTER:
The priest stressed that he would never marry a divorced person in his church.
or
The priest said: "I will never marry a divorced person in my church."

A more common use of the scare quote is to suggest that the word or phrase should not be taken at face value. It is often used to suggest disbelief or actual disagreement with the words as they are being used.

Someone who does not believe in global warming might put the phrase in scare quotes to signify that disbelief.

The Opposition Leader, Mr Tony Abbott, said people should not be alarmed by the threat of "global warming".

The problem with using a scare quote in this way is that it is now unclear whether the disbelief is in the mind of Mr Abbott or the writer of the sentence. Your credibility as a journalist depends partly on presenting information clearly and unambiguously for your readers, so avoid scare quotes in such circumstances.

Finally, the use of quotation marks to define a single word or phrase linguistically is justified in certain circumstances when the use and meaning are clear. For example:

The Minister said he had been misunderstood by some people who thought he had said 'weather' when, in fact, he had said 'whether'.

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TO SUMMARISE:

Quotes are an important tool for print journalists, but they should never be used on radio, and only as text on television.

Never begin a news story with a quote.

Try and keep a balance between quotes and other sentences.

Take care when punctuating quotes.

Avoid partial or incomplete quotes unless they are necessary.

Avoid scare quotes

This is the end of Part 1 of the this two-part section on quotes and attribution. If you now want to discover how to correctly attribute quotes, follow this link to the second section, Chapter 9: Attribution.

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Index of Chapter 8
  1. Why use quotes?
  2. When to use quotes
  3. Writing quotes
  4. Partial and incomplete quotes
  5. Scare quotes
  6. To summarise
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