A Short Quiz About Partial Quotations

By Mark Nichol

Formatting quotations can be tricky, especially when the words between the quotation marks do not constitute a complete sentence. How would you revise these clumsily formatted partial quotations? For each example, compare your corrections to mine in the paragraphs following each one.

1. “These days, says Smith, ‘The market does the valuation work for you.’”
To clarify the context, the writer has provided the quotation with an introductory phrase the person quoted did not actually utter; therefore, it is not inserted within the quotation marks.

And because — although “The market does the valuation work for you” is a full sentence — the potential quotation is “These days, the market does the valuation work for you,” the original quote is treated as a partial quotation and therefore does not begin with an initial-capped word: “These days, says Smith, ‘the market does the valuation work for you.’” Also, the attribution tag (“says Smith”) could be relocated to follow the quotation, but the sentence’s rhythm is better as is.

2. “But he conceded that, ‘with the world like it is, the situation looks a little different now.’”
If you do choose to make a partial quote immediately follow a contextual paraphrase, note that unlike as in the case of a simple attribution tag, when the paraphrased part of the sentence and the quotation portion are linked by that, they are not separated by a comma: “But he conceded that ‘with the world like it is, the situation looks a little different now.’”

However, if you convert the initial phrase to an attribution tag, do insert a comma after it: “But, he conceded, ‘with the world like it is, the situation looks a little different now.’”

3. “If you own a business ‘dependent on an abundant, reliable water source,’ he said, you probably aren’t thinking about building a plant in Las Vegas.”
In journalistic writing, quoted material gives the article a sense of accessibility — you feel like you are there listening to the source — and of veracity. But some people are more quotable than others, and some reporters are better at recording their source’s utterances better than others. Often, in the rush to capture a speaker’s comments, the reporter manages just a phrase here and there and presents them as partial quotes. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Here, as is frequently true, the exact words are inconsequential because the statement is mundane; there’s no personality or pithiness in the prose. In that case, it’s usually better just to treat the information as a paraphrase — a rewording of the quotation — even if it includes words or phrases (or the entire sentence fragment) actually uttered by the source: “If you own a business dependent on an abundant, reliable water source, he said, you probably aren’t thinking about building a plant in Las Vegas.”

4. “Smith kept his cool, but he was clearly upset that the plan was meant to ‘discredit the committee’s work and undermine its conclusions before those conclusions are even reached.’”

This partial quotation could be converted to a paraphrase, but because the issue is sensitive and the speaker is critical in his choice of words, most reporters would retain the markers indicating that these are the source’s exact words.

However, although it is strongly implicit in this sentence that Roberts is the source of the partial quotation, that’s not good enough. Even if a contextual phrase preceding a partial quotation refers to the speaker, insert an attribution tag: “Smith kept his cool, but he was clearly upset that the plan was meant to, as he put it, ‘discredit the committee’s work and undermine its conclusions before those conclusions are even reached.’”

5. “He championed an $11 billion water bond ensuring ‘a reliable water supply for future generations, as well as restoring ecologically sensitive areas.’”
This quotation is less stable than the previous one because it’s even less clear here that the person identified as the subject uttered the partial quotation. Make the connection clear: “He championed an $11 billion water bond ensuring, he said, ‘a reliable water supply for future generations, as well as restoring ecologically sensitive areas.’”

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4 Responses to “A Short Quiz About Partial Quotations”

  • Amazing Blair Peery

    The title of this piece, A Short Quiz About Partial Quotations, was somehow mutated in the email version to:

    “Wed A Short Quiz About Partial Quotations”.

    I couldn’t make sense of it, so I came here and saw the original. What do you suppose happened to add that extra word to the title?

  • Joshua Gotto

    I’m confused. Are you talking about quotations within quotations? Why is everything in quotation marks and then everything inside in further quotation marks?

    For example, for number one are you just saying that the sentence is

    These days , says Smith, “the market does the …” ?

    Or are you saying that you are quoting what someone else said Smith said?

    Thanks

  • Esther Bradley-DeTally

    I went to Boston Clerical School when the earth was young, and grammar and punctuation was quite strict. I was a legal secretary for about 100 years, and now, I am a writer and I teach writing.

    I still do, “But,” he said to the drolling hound on the floor in front of him, “if you continue to drool, you won’t get your bicky.”

    Hmmph, thought the hound. I’ll just go pee on his shoes in the closet.

    Your thoughts?

  • Laiki

    I must admit to finding these examples confusing, and suspect that this may be at least partly due to differences between UK and US English punctuation. (I’m based in the US.)

    The double quotes at the beginning and end of each sentence gave me the initial impression that the author is quoting someone else speaking aloud about what a third party (Smith) said. But taken in context, I’d guess that they are simply intended to indicate that the words between them are indeed the example under consideration, yes? IMHO, bolding the example as you’ve done above would be sufficient.

    Also, whenever I break up a quotation with an attribution, I close the quotes, give the attribution, then open them again after the comma. Example:

    “Let’s go to the beach,” Miranda said, “and work on erasing these unsightly bikini lines.”

    Is the above placement of quotation marks an American English convention? If so, well, I’ve learned something new today. I’d always thought that the only real difference between UK and US quotation mark usage is that UK English uses single quotes where US English uses double quotes, e.g., for first-person quotations…and these marks are alternated each time the quoted speaker quotes another person’s words (spoken or written).

    By the way, John Barth’s “The Sot-Weed Factor” comes to mind as a prime example of multiple-level quote mark usage in dialogue. Talk about confusing!

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