3 Justifications for Altering Quotations

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Generally, writers should not change the wording in quotations, but quotations that lack context or that include a gratuitous word or phrase should be repaired, as shown in the following examples.

1. “Without those tools, she said, ‘It’s as if years ago we had given them a pencil to write the essay and took away the eraser.’”
When a partial paraphrase is inserted before a quotation to provide clarity or additional information, lowercase the first letter of the first word of the quotation even if it was originally a complete sentence: “Without those tools, she said, ‘it’s as if years ago we had given them a pencil to write the essay and took away the eraser.’”

2. “It [the fire] was both a setback and a great relief,” he later remarked.
Avoid introducing a bracketed noun or noun phrase to specify what an ambiguous pronoun refers to in a quote. Instead, use the noun or noun phrase in a paraphrase and omit the pronoun from the partial quotation that follows: “The fire, he later remarked, ‘was both a setback and a great relief.’”

3. “I think it’s important to recognize that this issue is not a, quote, distraction,” she added.
Omit, without comment, a speaker’s or writer’s use of the word quote (or the phrase “quote, unquote”) to signal emphasis or skeptical or ironic usage; simply frame the emphasized word or phrase in single quotation marks: “‘I think it’s important to recognize that this issue is not a “distraction,”’ she added.”

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12 thoughts on “3 Justifications for Altering Quotations”

  1. Mark,

    Thank you for your insights into appropriate use of quotations. I actually teach college English and writing, and I have to explain these very same issues to my students. You make the principles easy to understand and apply.


    Darin L Hammond

  2. I guess I totally missed your focus on the first example, because my ears hurt from lack of parallelism more than my eyes hurt from capitalization of the ‘I.’
    “…we had given them a pencil to write the essay and took away the eraser.” How about something like “…[W]e had given them pencils to write the essay and HAD TAKEN away the erasers” ? This would probably call for some more brackets, I suppose, since you are changing the quote.

  3. I tried sending in a question on the the validity on the third item in the altering quotes article. However, I would really like to know that both item two and item three are correct. To me, the final examples of both are incorrect although the description of what should be are correct. So, in my view, either I’m flawed or both of those items are flawed. Which is it?

  4. Okay so now I feel like an idiot because I have reread the article and feel that all three final examples are incorrect. Please verify the quote mark placements, including single quotes, and let me know if I am wrong. Thanks

  5. I think that the quotation marks are nested incorrectly in the following: “‘I think it’s important to recognize that this issue is not a “distraction,”’ she added.” The way that is is written is confusing and it does not agree with the text that describes it.

    Also, I believe that there is probably a terminology problem with:
    single quotation marks. Let me give an example to show it:
    These are ‘single quotation marks’.
    These are “double quotation marks”.
    These are ”’triple quotation marks”’.

    In American English, double quotation marks are used upon their first or only appeance in a sentence: “Ich bin ein Berliner,” said President Kennedy. I think that everyone should do this: Australian, British, Canadian, New Zealander, South African, etc., but they have their own ideas.
    Then, single quotation marks are used only for nested quotations:
    Mr. Jackson said, “I have always been inspired by ‘I have a dream’, as stated by Martin Luther King, Jr.”

  6. “The way that is is written is confusing”? Yes, it is. Please tell me when (and more importantly, why) expressions like “the thing is” were replaced by “the thing is is”. I hear such verbal excesses on TV every day, spoken by professional broadcasters as well as prominent speakers, including the POTUS.
    And a related question: When (and certainly why) did the phrase “if I would’ve known” replace “if I had known”?

  7. I’m glad I’m not the only one confused by these 3 examples. Two and three I agree with, but no matter how I try to wrap my mind around number one, I can’t make it work.

  8. t:

    You’re (half) right: Took should be taken (not “had taken”). Unless the quote was reported in a journalistic context, I would silently correct this minor lapse in grammar.

  9. t: Yes, you are right about the awkwardness, etc. but I think you’re missing the bigger point: It is a QUOTE. That is the issue. If that is what the person said, that is what you need to write. I disagree, to some extent, with MN that you have license to “correct” someone’s grammar when quoting them unless it is absolutely necessary. If they said, “I have took away the eraser”, then that is what you should write. Indeed, quoting faithrfully IS one of the surest ways to make someone appear an idiot, but still. There is always [sic]. That probably makes the speaker look even worse, but at least it shows YOU know the difference. There is always the option of not quoting:

    She remarked that without those tools it would be as if we had given them a pencil to write the essay and taken away the eraser.

  10. The first example isn’t really altering the quote, is it? It is simply changing what and how you write it down. She did say, “Without those tools it’s as if years ago we had given them a pencil to write the essay and took away the eraser.’” Right? You are not altering that.

  11. Never forget the Prime Directive for Quotations:

    However you shape (for stylistic reasons) what people say both inside and outside quotation marks and with bracketed text and ellipses, always quote them honestly and in context. Don’t twist their words to say something else.

    I’d add another suggestion. If two quotes are a significant distance apart, don’t imply otherwise. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln did not say, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war…. that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

    Too much of Lincoln’s intervening argument is left out. In his speech he doesn’t link that new birth of freedom to the civil war, true though that may be, but to the death of soldiers in battle. We honor those soldiers by freeing slaves.

    There’s a reason for that. Lincoln entered the war, he said, not to end slavery but to restore the union. It was the huge cost of that war, particularly in human lives, that justified granting freedom to slaves.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Leukemia.

  12. I am simply a lowly self pub writer who has published some novels in Kindle, but I have some thoughts on quotations I would like to express. I understood Dale Wood’s explanation of single and double quotes, but I am totally confused by his reference to triple quotes. Is there even such a thing? What I was taught was that, if there is a need to embed quotes within quotes within quotes ad infinitum, the writer should simply switch back and forth between double and single quotes. Consider this example.

    A group of girls were sleeping in their cabinet and things were quiet until someone finally spoke.
    “Who?” Someone said.
    “Who said ‘Who?” Janey asked.
    “Who said ‘Who said “Who?”” Ruth asked.
    “Who said ‘who said “who said” ‘who?’

    And so on, with other girls contributing.

    Although I have never published in the traditional sense, I read extensively and I have never heard of or seen triple quotes. I have seen instances in which a single quote is enclosed by a double quote, such as when an embedded quote runs to two paragraphs or more. In that instance, each new paragraph must begin with both a double quote followed by a single quote.

    I have done that in my self published novels. If anyone is interested e-mail me and I will send you a link to my e-books. You could even write a review, if you like. I realize that this seems like a backhanded request for a review. However, even the self pub racket has rules. One of them is that I cannot purchase a copy of my own novel for someone else to read, then expect a review. I think most of you could afford the $2.99 copy per book and, if any of you care to purchase a copy, yourselves then read and review, that would be allowed.

    I apologize for the apparent crassness of this message. I am sincerely interested in how triple quotes are used. Mr. Wood neglected to explain that in his posting.

    Happy writing and or reading.

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