Do newspapers ever correct a speaker's broken English?

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March 10 2010 4:29 PM

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Do newspapers ever correct a speaker's broken English?

The New York Times.

The Wednesday New York Times article on Haisong Jiang, the man who inadvertently shut down Newark International Airport by slipping past security during the Christmas holidays, contains a quotation in broken English. Jiang, a Chinese native, told the Times: "I never face this situation before; I try to do my best to fix the problem." Are newspapers allowed to clean up quotations to make them grammatically correct?

In theory, no. Most newspaper style guides are unambiguous about attempts to "clean up" the language of an interviewee. "Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage," says the style book of the Associated Press. The New York Times style guide is equally explicit: "The Times does not 'clean up' quotations." Washington Post policy says that "[w]hen we put a source's words inside quotation marks, those exact words should have been uttered in precisely that form."

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In practice, however, there's often a bit of dusting—a fact that most of the style guides acknowledge. Everyone says it's OK to omit extraneous syllables like "um" or "uh." The Times allows reporters to "judiciously delete false starts" without adding ellipses.

When it comes to dialect, things get tricky. On the one hand, newspapers don't want to embarrass someone who doesn't speak proper English by highlighting his poor grammar in print. On the other, rendering slangy or broken speech in grammatically correct English can come off as patronizing. (As the Post puts it, "it's foolish, as well as misleading, to alter the words of high school dropouts to make them sound like professors.") The general rule is that reporters should try not to embarrass subjects who use improper grammar. Reporters are encouraged, for example, to paraphrase. If, however, a reporter decides to quote directly, the Times urges him to avoid spelling words incorrectly in order to re-create the sound, like writing "doin' " instead of "doing": "Usually the decision should be that word order and turns of phrase paint a clearer picture than eccentric spelling." In cases where English is not the speaker's first language, the reporter should also communicate that fact explicitly. (The Times story says that Jiang's English is "nearly fluent.")

The issue of direct quotation comes up frequently on sports pages. In 2007, the Washington Post generated a controversy surrounding the quotation of Redskins running back Clinton Portis. One Post reporter quoted Portis saying, "I don't know how anybody feels. I don't know how anybody's thinking. I don't know what anyone else is going through. The only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis's life." Another quoted him saying, "I don't know how nobody feel, I don't know what nobody think, I don't know what nobody doing, the only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis's life." The Post's ombudsman weighed in, saying that quotes should not be changed.

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Explainer thanks Diane McNulty of the New York Times and Kris Coratti of the Washington Post.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.