Here’s How to Treat Attribution, He Said
Attribution is the convention in composition of identifying a speaker or writer when you include direct quotes (which should be enclosed in quotation marks) or paraphrases. An entire system of usage — a choreography, if you will — has developed around how to arrange quotations and paraphrases and their attributions. Here are the dance steps:
“The basic setup is to reproduce a single sentence, followed by an attribution,” he began. “Then, if the quotation consists of more than one sentence, follow the attribution with the rest of it.” If the quotation extends for more than one paragraph, do not close the first paragraph with an end quotation mark; this omission signals to the reader that the same person is being quoted in the next paragraph.
In that next paragraph, rinse and repeat. Many publications, however, treat long quotations as extracts, specially formatted with narrower margins, sometimes in a different font or font size, and set off from the rest of the text. The tipping point for minimum word count for an extract varies, starting at about a hundred words.
Attributions can also precede a quotation: “The report concluded, ‘Meanwhile, the ecosystems it is intended to save are in peril.’” Or they can be inserted within one, in a natural breaking point: “‘For millions of people,’ she added, ‘reclaimed water has become as ordinary as storm sewers and summer droughts.’”
Beware of sentences that introduce the attribution before the end of the sentence when there is no internal punctuation. Sometimes it works: “‘The lesson,’ Smith says, ‘is that we should have paid more attention to what nature was telling us.’” Sometimes it doesn’t: “‘We knew,’ Jones says, ‘that Microsoft would eventually become a major competitor.’”
You’ll notice that some attributions in the samples above are in present tense, and some are in past tense. Which is correct? The answer is, either. It depends on the medium. News articles generally employ past tense because they’re reporting on an event that has already occurred or recording what someone said about an event, while features and profiles, crafted to make you feel like you are at the writer’s shoulder, often feature present tense.
Books referring to the past, appropriately, quote historical figures with past-tense attributions, but those with interviews of real, live people are likely to be written with attributions formed in the present tense. In all expository writing, let these parameters be your guides.
And what about fiction? Writing novels in the present tense is rare; it can be distracting — or, worse, exhausting. It’s easier to get away with it in short stories. Two additional guidelines about attributions in fiction:
First, don’t overdo identification of speakers in a dialogue; craft alternating speech so that you minimize the necessity of tossing in “he said,” “she replied,” and so on. Second, do vary the verbs you use, but don’t get carried away with numerous obscure synonyms for said.
(Oh, and don’t use a word for a nonspeaking sound to mark attribution: “‘At last, I have you in my clutches!’ he laughed diabolically” is clumsy because you can’t laugh a sentence. How about “he cried with a diabolical laugh”?)
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