Fitting Quotations

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Incorporating direct quotations effectively is an important writing skill.

Here is an example of an ill-fitting quotation in an article about media doctor Mehmet Oz who was recently the subject of a Senate hearing. It’s from an article by Terrence McCoy in The Washington Post (print and digital):

“I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact,” Oz said at a U.S. Senate hearing, adding that he “personally believes in the items I talk about in my show.”

One obvious problem with this example is the use of pronouns that don’t go together. Not so obvious is the fact that the quotation differs from what Oz actually said.

Quotation marks represent a covenant between writer and reader, a promise that the words enclosed by them are exactly what the person being quoted said.

Here’s the original response to Senator McCaskill’s question:

I actually do personally believe in the items I talk about in the show.

In quoting Oz’s original statement, the writer has fallen into a crack between direct and indirect quotation. The word he is outside the quoted material, but the writer (or editor) has added an -s to believe to make it agree with he. Without noticing that the pronoun I does not fit with the preceding he, the writer adds a my that was not in the original quotation.

The writer could have reported the words as an indirect quotation, putting only part of it in quotation marks:

he “personally believes” in the products he talks about in his show.

Or, he could have introduced the quotation with a colon:

“I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact,” Oz said at a U.S. Senate hearing, adding: “I actually do personally believe in the items I talk about in the show.”

A quotation should not be dropped into an essay or a news article without adequate introduction. It should agree grammatically with surrounding text, reproduce the exact words that were said, and it should not stand alone.

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6 thoughts on “Fitting Quotations”

  1. In your first example of the correct alternatives, would the -s on believes be correct as you wrote it? How about: he “personally believe[s]”…?

  2. I’m even more perplexed by the phrase, “…don’t have the scientific muster…”. Muster is most often a verb. As a noun it normally means an assembly of something, like a muster of people of some sort. Don’t have the muster of scientists, then? MW recognizes the definitions of 1) a representative specimen or sample, and 2) critical examination, both of which could fit, I suppose. But then that’s MW who also list nü ÷-kyə-lər without comment. So…

  3. Festus,
    On second thought, it would be better to put the quotation marks around “personally” and leave “believes” as part of the running text.

  4. @Maeve: I think the second way you wrote it is better, because as long as he was directly quoting him, he may as well have continued to do so, especially since he didn’t save any space by doing that partially-direct thing. Use of brackets seems acceptable too, but it does add some clutter that s avoided by just using the direct quote.
    @venqax: I didn’t even blink at the word muster until I read your comment. I understood exactly what they meant, and I thought the word was OK there, but maybe they meant to use a different word? I interpret its use here to mean strength. Maybe they meant muscle, or something.

  5. @bluebird: Maybe you’re right. People actually speaking in the real world– especially testifying– make all kinds of technical mistakes and it is in no way a poor reflection on them. It’s the way people actually talk (live!) and the statement is reported as a quotation.

    I think of muster as something one passes– like inspection– not something that one “has”. I don’t think one would say that something didn’t “have” inspection, as opposed to not passing it. So if he had said it doesn’t pass scientific muster, I wouldn’t have paused at all and that may be what he meant to say. But the other definitions of muster as noun might allow it to work, although, IMO, awkwardly.

  6. Hi Maeve. The last example of the quote is the best and smoothest way to write it. It avoids the pronoun problems you talked about. In my journalism experience, I learned not to use partial quotes because they look awkward. So I like the full direct quote.

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