A Quiz About Attribution

Punctuation associated with attribution — identification of the source of a statement — can, when used incorrectly, confuse rather than clarify communication. Troubleshoot these troublesome sentences, paying attention to the relationship of the attribution to the rest of the sentence, and then compare your revisions with my solutions at the bottom of the page:

1. “Now he needed ‘new worlds to conquer,’ in his own words.”

2. “She makes this moral argument, ‘Taking whatever we need from the world to support our comfortable lives is not worthy of us as moral beings.’”

3. “Only a few days before the sisters flew off to the Caribbean, Smith said Jane had moved from her apartment in San Francisco.”

4. “Unfortunately, he estimated that it’s 25 percent less effective at eliminating odors than standard brands.”

5. “I think they’re going to have that mentality of: ‘How dare he?’”

6. “And while Osama bin Laden’s killing has dealt a crippling blow to his terrorist organization, she said, ‘Nobody should believe individual al Qaeda leaders cannot be replaced.’”

7. “To pass a necessity test usually means a negative response to the question: ‘Can the same result be obtained by other means?’”

8. “He explained that unlike during the previous droughts, ‘When the drought breaks, we will not return to cooler, wetter conditions.’”

9. “‘We were very worried,’ says Jones, ‘It was the winter from hell.’”

10. “He voted against the bill, declaring: ‘The only thing this bill will stimulate is the national debt.’”

Answers and Explanations

1. The original sentence is correct, but there’s more to good writing that correct grammar. There’s a great opportunity in this sentence for a rhythm of tension and release, so exploit it: “Now he needed, in his own words, ‘new worlds to conquer.’”

2. When an attribution is in itself grammatically self-contained (“She makes this moral argument” is a complete sentence), use a colon, rather than a comma, to signal the setup (as I’ve done when prefacing each correction here): “She makes this moral argument: ‘Taking whatever we need from the world to support our comfortable lives is not worthy of us as moral beings.’”

3. The punctuation in this sentence conveys that Smith made the statement shortly before the sisters’ flight. But “Smith said” is a parenthetical attribution that tells the reader who made the comment that the move occurred just before the trip: “Only a few days before the sisters flew off to the Caribbean, Smith said, Jane had moved from her apartment in San Francisco.”

4. This sentence’s problem is the same as the preceding one; it’s only the length of the introductory part of the sentence that differs. The estimate described was not unfortunate; “unfortunately” is part of the larger sentence, not part of the attribution: “Unfortunately, he estimated, it’s 25 percent less effective at eliminating odors than standard brands.”

5. By contrast with the second sentence, above, in this case a colon immediately preceding the quotation clumsily brings the sentence to a halt. No punctuation is necessary in this type of construction: “I think they’re going to have that mentality of ‘How dare he?’”

6. When a person’s comments are partially paraphrased, and an attribution separates an indirect quotation from a direct quotation, the latter element, because it doesn’t constitute a complete sentence, should not begin with a capitalized word — even if it is grammatically complete: “And while Osama bin Laden’s killing has dealt a crippling blow to his terrorist organization, she said, ‘nobody should believe individual al Qaeda leaders cannot be replaced.’”

7. As in the fifth example, above, this sentence requires no punctuation preceding the quotation: “To pass a necessity test usually means a negative response to the question ‘Can the same result be obtained by other means?’”

8. As in the sixth example, above, though the direct quotation is a complete sentence, a preceding paraphrase has been attached to it as an introductory phrase. Even though, unlike in the similar example, the attribution begins the sentence rather than appears between the indirect and direct quotations, the two elements constitute a single statement and the direct quotation should not begin with a capitalized word: “He explained that unlike during the previous droughts, ‘when the drought breaks, we will not return to cooler, wetter conditions.’”

9. This sentence consists of two complete statements separated by an attribution, so the attribution should be followed by a period: “‘We were very worried,’ says Jones. ‘It was the winter from hell.’”

10. When an attribution includes a verb, the punctuation following it should be a comma, not a colon: “He voted against the bill, declaring, ‘The only thing this bill will stimulate is the national debt.’”

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5 Responses to “A Quiz About Attribution”

  1. Leif G.S. Notae on February 16, 2012 8:54 am

    Always enjoy these little teasers and puzzles you post for my writing. These always make me think outside the box and make my efforts better. Thanks for posting these, I really do appreciate it.

  2. Sally on February 16, 2012 7:56 pm

    “When an attribution is in itself grammatically self-contained (“She makes this moral argument” is a complete sentence), use a colon, rather than a comma, to signal the setup (as I’ve done when prefacing each correction here).”

    Such a ‘rule’ is not yet totally accepted outside the US.

  3. Sally on February 16, 2012 8:02 pm

    “When a person’s comments are partially paraphrased, and an attribution separates an indirect quotation from a direct quotation, the latter element, because it doesn’t constitute a complete sentence, should not begin with a capitalized word — even if it is grammatically complete.”

    Nor is this one – except when ‘that’ precedes the quotation marks.

  4. Mary Hodges on February 17, 2012 1:14 pm

    Doesn’t this require inverted commas like this:
    “Only a few days before the sisters flew off to the Caribbean, ” Smith said, “Jane had moved from her apartment in San Francisco.”
    i.e. the sentence is direct speech interrupted by “Smith said ” indicating the speaker.

  5. Mark Nichol on February 17, 2012 3:58 pm

    Mary:

    Quotation marks would be required if this were a direct quote, but in the original source, the statement is a paraphrase.

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