Ralph Waldo Emerson

“By necessity, by proclivity — and by delight, we all quote.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yogi Berra

“I never said most of the things I said.”

— Yogi Berra

Get me a quote

We must take special care when we use quotes in our stories.

For the reader, quote marks signal a speaker’s exact words, whether they are or not. For some writers, exact words means just that, although this extreme view can make for some difficult reading. Good writers choose strong quotes and present them in a way that fits the tone of the story.

What is a direct quote?

Your magazine articles will be better if you read quotes with the same critical eye you use on all of your copy.

We would be naive to think that what a writer presents as a quote is always the exact words of the speaker. Instead, writers give their best representation of what a speaker said. The exact words of the speaker are filtered by the reporter’s sense of hearing, note-taking ability, attention to detail, news judgment, typing skills and language skills.

Sources understand this; some even expect the writer to make them look good. But as a writer, you must do your best to quote sources accurately. Be aware that the top magazines have fact checkers call sources and read back the quotes to them. Never risk losing your credibility by fudging quotes.

Quotes: The few, the strong

Weak quotes get into a story through several routes:

The indispensable quote

Quotes are almost mandatory in magazine articles of any length. Here’s why:

When to quote

Not all quotes are created equal. A quote usually is worth keeping if:

David Cameron

David Cameron

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Tactics for using quotes

Before you evaluate a quote, keep in mind the importance of punctuation: The quote is what goes between the quote marks. No quote marks, no quotes. Words contained within quote marks have special status, so be careful.

For a quote to be a quote, the writer must preserve at least part of what’s said in quote marks. Sometimes this means removing material and using the partial quote. Sometimes this means adding explanatory words in brackets.

The best quote is the full quote; a full quote is a full sentence: “People get very emotionally involved with their typewriters,” Mr. Tytell said. “I understand it — I talk to typewriters myself sometimes.”

But sometimes the full quote is not worth printing, or sometimes it needs help. Here are some useful tactics:

The snippet

A snippet is a partial quote, sometimes as short as one word. A full quote can contain more words than it’s worth but still have critical language that must be quoted.

William Rehnquist

William Rehnquist

The U.S. Senate took this oath on Jan. 7, 1998, from Chief Justice William Rehnquist:

“Do you solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States, now pending, you will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help you God?”

An Associated Press story of Jan. 7 boiled that down to this:

Senators today were taking an oath to “do impartial justice,” and Chief Justice William Rehnquist was assuming his role as presiding officer for Clinton’s trial on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

The words “do impartial justice,” had extra meaning in this case. The Clinton impeachment trial was thought to be a strictly partisan affair rather than a real trial, and the final vote bore that out, with no Democratic senator voting for impeachment.

Don’t overuse snippets; they can make the reader eye-weary. For example, look at this original paragraph:

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi said the best way for senators to remain “cool and calm” would be to “hear each other” and to “talk to each other,” adding that the senate was in “uncharted waters.” At the White House, Joe Lockhart, Clinton’s press secretary, said the president’s lawyers would make a “compelling case” for acquittal.

Keep snippets that carry important words or words that are interesting or unique. Otherwise, do the editor’s job:

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi said the best way for senators to remain “cool and calm” would be to hear and talk to each other, adding that the senate was in “uncharted waters.” At the White House, Joe Lockhart, Clinton’s press secretary, said the president’s lawyers would make a “compelling case” for acquittal.

Be careful not to introduce an ungrammatical or awkward shift in pronouns when you use a snippet:

In a brief statement issued by the association, Bourassa said he was quitting for health reasons. His doctor “has recommended that I immediately discontinue all stressful activity. Therefore, I hereby resign as president of the Smith Mountain Lake.”

The paragraph starts in the third person, then shifts to the first person in the snippet. Recast it to keep it in the third person:

In a brief statement issued by the association, Bourassa said he was quitting for health reasons. He said his doctor had recommended that he “immediately discontinue all stressful activity.”

“Therefore, I hereby resign as president of the Smith Mountain Lake Association effective May 24, 1985,” Bourassa said.

Take note of the punctuation. The snippet ends with quote marks, then the full quote follows in a new paragraph. The shift to first person is comfortable in the full quote.

Use ellipses

An ellipses signals that words have been removed from the quote. A good quote with a stretch of useless or repetitive information in the middle of it can be shortened with ellipses.

Be aware, however, that ellipses can serve two purposes: to mark where material is missing or to indicate a pause. To avoid this ambiguity, avoid ellipses when possible.

Here is a confusing use of ellipses:

On the day he stabbed bus driver Luther Crowder, Edmonds said that “Queen Isabella stomped me with her foot to my mind … there was no way to base my mentality … no way to survive …”

In the example above, ellipses serve only to draw attention to what’s missing. Ellipses are unnecessary at the beginning of the second sentence in the quote below, too:

“The safest thing will be to bow out now and let everyone know,” said Bill Houck, vice president in charge of public relations for Festival Park. “…A lot of people probably put a lot of time into it and we know they’d like to be in that water, but it’s just too dangerous.”

Use brackets

Sometimes one or two words of explanation in brackets or parentheses can save a quote from being meaningless or hard to understand:

“He is making a mockery of the United States justice system,” the senator said.

The edited version:

“[Clinton] is making a mockery of the United States justice system,” the senator said.

Make one-word grammar fixes

When the emphasis is on what is said, not who is saying it, clean up your subject’s grammar. It’s not fair to hold subjects to small mistakes in grammar; we don’t talk as neatly as we write. Mistakes get in the way of what is being said and distract the reader Here’s an example.

“That little girl is very brave,” Hanson said. “She was laying there with half her arm off, but she laid there and behaved herself and did exactly what we told her to do.”

Here it is edited:

“That little girl is very brave,” Hanson said. “She was lying there with half her arm off, but she lay there and behaved herself and did exactly what we told her to do.”

In the example above, a story about rescuing a child from an accident scene, the speaker’s grammar mistakes only serve to distract the reader from what’s important in the story: the little girl’s bravery and the drama of the rescue. But note that only the words laying and laid were changed. To change more—and leave the quote marks in place — would be a mistake.

Sometimes grammar has a bearing on the story. For example, a man who wanted to educate his son at home was being prosecuted under state truancy laws. Here is one of the few quotes from the story:

“My son won’t go to these schools,” Hermanstyne said. “They cannot teach him nothing in the sciences.”

Should the writer change it to “anything about the sciences”?

A question the story explored was if the man was capable of educating his son at home. His grammar would seem relevant to answering that question. Even so, the quotes were sparse. Did he speak perfect English for most of the interview, only to have one of his rare slip-ups selected for the story? That would have characterized the speaker unfairly.

In this case, the writer said the man used atrocious grammar for two hours. The quote was not unfair, and because grammar had a bearing on the story, it was left as written.

When the emphasis is on who is speaking, leave grammar alone. In feature stories about people, quotes often are used to characterize the subject, bad grammar and all. But phonetic spellings rarely are necessary when phrasing and word use are enough. Consider this quote:

“I’m gonna draw my pay and then I’m takin’ me a little vacation,” Bonner said.

The phonetic spellings make the quote hard to read, and are they really necessary or fair? Many of us drop our g’s or say “gonna” or “wanna” instead of “going to” and “want to.” One of our former presidents used to talk about the zekative branch of gummint, but writers always translated it into executive and government. Writers seem to use dialect only when the speaker is from a rural area.

Another problem is that writers aren’t consistent with phonetic spellings. Consider this:

“I’m gonna draw my pay and then I’m takin’ me a little vacation,” Bonner said. “When we return, my wife and I are going to look into buying a new house.”

How do you fix the inconsistency? Change the phonetic spellings to common spellings.

Jack Webb

Jack Webb

Profanity in quotes

In 1950, the actor Jack Webb created a sensation when he said the word damn during an episode of “Dragnet.” Today, profanity is inescapable: on street corners, in television episodes and in the news.

Writers more and more will find sources who use profanity in answering even routine questions. In Evan Thomas’ story about Don Imus, it’s instructive that Imus dropped the F-word without hesitation on a reporter from a national news magazine.

When a writer runs into a source who swears, the writer might believe that the profanity must be included if quotes are to be accurate. How does he or she decide?

First and most important, the writer must know the publication and its policy on profanity. Then when a subject utters a profanity that is important to the story, the writer must convey those words in a way that fits the publication. In the Don Imus quote, Newsweek attempted to soften the force of Imus’ profanity by making it f—-ing while leaving the word in to retain Imus’ irreverent nature. Some publications would just delete the offending word, believing that using hyphens doesn’t really hide the word from readers.

Many publications have no reluctance to let profanity stand in all its glory if it is important to the context of the story. The New Yorker, surely one of the most dignified magazines on the news stand, routinely allows all varieties of profanity to appear in its pages.

Another guideline is don’t go out of your way to offend.

When profanity is necessary, don’t rub the reader’s nose in it. It’s one thing to use profanity in a story; it’s quite another to put that profanity in a title or subtitle.

When a quote can’t be saved

In sizing up a quotation, a writer might decide that the information is valuable but more than one-word grammar fixes is needed to make the quote readable. In this case, the writer can paraphrase the quote. At other times, the writer might decide to delete the quote.


Remember that paraphrasing is not a way to save a quote. The first step is to remove the quote marks. In doing so, the writer is saying, These are no longer the exact words of the speaker; it is no longer a quote.

After the writer removes the quote marks, he or she can edit the words like any other piece of copy.

A good place to paraphrase is in translating jargon:

“On subsequent investigation of the terrain, CENCOM determined that a vertical insertion of troops would best facilitate success of the planned interdiction,” Ridgeman said.

Edited as a paraphrase:

After mapping out the terrain, the central command decided using paratroopers would be the best way to make the attack a success, Ridgeman said.

Paraphrasing also is a useful tool when a quote runs for several paragraphs. After two or three paragraphs, the writer can look for a change of direction or a change of subject, then paraphrase a sentence or two. This adds variety and also can supply a valuable transition to the story.

Deleting the quote

If a writer can’t paraphrase the quote, or if it’s not worth saving, then it’s best to strike the quote. Anything dumb, wrong, libelous, unnecessary or inconsistent should be cut.

In this example, the quote is libelous and dumb:

“We nailed the rapist,” an unidentified bystander said. “Now, we just hope some do-gooder judge doesn’t let him go.”

This quote is libelous because the person arrested in the case would be convicted in print as a rapist—and by an anonymous person. It’s dumb because it expresses an extreme opinion of the court system that probably doesn’t fit the topic of the story. The best thing to do would be to delete the quote.

Quotes in context

Context is sometimes more important than what a person said. Consider this excerpt from a Newsweek story about radio personality Don Imus:

Does Imus go too far? “I’m the f—-ing I-man!” he explodes. “What do you mean too far! What, are you crazy?”

The quote above is just as it was written except some of the context has been removed. It makes Imus seem like an egomaniac. But here’s the quote as the reporter, Evan Thomas, actually wrote it:

Does Imus go too far? “I’m the f—-ing I-man!” he explodes, or pretends to. “What do you mean too far! What, are you crazy?”

Now the quote takes on a playful nature and tells us much more about the personality of the speaker. Context makes the quotes mean different things.

One more time: Be careful

Because people don’t speak as neatly as they write, virtually every quotation you see in a newspaper could be said better in a paraphrase. Keep in mind the importance of having quotes, and that the writer’s first approach should be to preserve good quotes.

Two most common mistakes:

  1. Making more than one-word grammar fixes and still leaving it in quote marks.
  2. Killing a quote worth saving.


INSTRUCTOR: Michael O’Donnell | | 651-962-5281