5 Errors in Treating Quotations

By Mark Nichol

When you quote another person, be sure to avoid these pitfalls of quotation format.

1. “Sometimes, LaPierre said, ‘The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’”
In this sentence, the writer has inserted the word sometimes, though the speaker did not utter it verbatim, into the sentence because the speaker intimated it in other words. Because it wasn’t actually spoken, however, it is placed outside the quotation marks. But the sentiment begins with sometimes, not the, so the quotation becomes a partial one and the is not capitalized: “Sometimes, LaPierre said, ‘the only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’”

2. Alfred North Whitehead wrote that “The best education is to be found in gaining the utmost information from the simplest apparatus.”
A similar rule applies to an attribution (“so and so said/wrote/agreed”) that leads into the quotation without intervening punctuation; the quotation becomes part of a framing sentence, and the first word of the original quotation is not capitalized: “Alfred North Whitehead wrote that ‘the best education is to be found in gaining the utmost information from the simplest apparatus.’”

3. “‘We knew,’ Jones says, ‘that the company would eventually become a major competitor, but, without a relationship, we thought we were in danger of not achieving ubiquity.’”
In this sentence, the writer interjects the attribution into the midst of the quotation, which is standard procedure. However, the attribution should be delayed until a break between two clauses: “‘We knew that the company would eventually become a major competitor,’ Jones says, ‘but, without a relationship, we thought we were in danger of not achieving ubiquity.’”

4. “‘Schools may be the last place,'” Smith said, ‘where the government is funding us to gather together into public forums to have conversations. We have got to protect that.’”
This sentence, like the previous example, suffers from premature attribution. Because there is no natural break in the sentence, the attribution should be inserted between the two sentences: “‘Schools may be the last place where the government is funding us to gather together into public forums to have conversations,’ Smith said. ‘We have got to protect that.’”

5. “’In many ways, it’s like the cowboys against the Indians. But the cowboys are fully backed by the state,’ he said of the current situation.”
In this case, the attribution is delayed too long. In a quotation of two or more sentences, as in the previous example, place it between the first and second sentences: “‘In many ways, it’s like the cowboys against the Indians,’ he said of the current situation. ‘But the cowboys are fully backed by the state.’” (Note, too, how this arrangement strengthens the sentence because it ends with a serious punchline rather than a dry attribution.)

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5 Responses to “5 Errors in Treating Quotations”

  • Steve Maurer

    Concerning example #1:

    Since the word ‘Sometimes’ was not actually spoken, but inferred from either surrounding context or concepts, and the writer is using it to add further, explanatory information, would it not be better to bracket the word and move it wth the rest of the quote? For example:

    LaPierre said, “[Sometimes] the only thing to stop a bad buy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

    Then again, this may depend as to what ‘sometimes’ refers. Did LaPierre sometimes say this, referring to utterance? Or did LaPierre mean that the good guy with a gun was sometimes necessary?

  • thebluebird11

    Mark, this post is kind of confusing to me, because you don’t have quotation marks around the examples, but you do have them in the reworked sentences. This causes you to need to use single quotation marks (quotes within quotes), which were not present in your examples. Is the implication here that all the examples are direct quotes?
    In other words, taking your first example and using full quotes around the entire sentence: “Sometimes, LaPierre said, “The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Your corrected version is proper, if, as you said, you were quoting this whole sentence in a post.
    However, if I read this sentence as it stood before, I would not understand if LaPierre expressed this thought on occasion (and maybe expressed differing thoughts, or none at all, on other occasions), OR if LaPierre was of the solid opinion that SOMETIMES the only thing to stop a bad guy, etc.
    Since the former possibility is not likely, the word “sometimes” really is misplaced, I think. I would put that word where it belongs, depending on the meaning I needed to convey. “LaPierre said, ‘Sometimes the only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.'” Now, if in fact LaPierre didn’t use that exact word but it was certainly implied, I think you could bracket it, as follows: “LaPierre said, ‘[Sometimes] the only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.'” In the event that he only expressed this view sometimes, it should read, “Sometimes LaPierre said, ‘The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.'” In this case, the punctuation (the comma) needs to be eliminated.
    If you are using a direct quote and must leave “sometimes” at the head of the sentence, I would think it needs its own set of quotes, again assuming the whole thing is a direct quote. This makes it too complicated for me to figure out where the single and double quotes would go! “‘Sometimes,’ LaPierre said, ‘The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.'” is the best I can come up with, but it’s way too complicated, and seems unnecessarily so.
    I need a nap.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @thebluebird11, that was my mistake. I somehow removed the double quotation marks from the original sentences when uploading the post. I fixed it now. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Rich Wheeler

    Very interesting examples and informative analysis.

    I agree with the author’s assessment for example 1. The complication I see is quite different from thebluebird’s view. It is apparent that the writer has either changed LaPierre’s message or is using LaPierre’s statement to support his opinion. In the former case, adding “sometimes” is dishonest. In the latter case, the word ‘as’ should be added so that it reads, “Sometimes, as LaPierre said….”

    If you try the following, I think you will clear up some formatting issues:

    Examples 1 and 3 through 5 do not need quotation marks, since they are set apart from the comments. However, they should be italicized. Since the examples double as headings, retain the bolding.

    The paragraphs should be broken before the corrected quotes and the quotes should be italicized. (Do not bold them.)

  • thebluebird11

    Ah, it all becomes clear…you guys are in cahoots to make my head spin LOL

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