When a reader asked about the use of brackets in a recent email, I started to refer him to my post When and How to Use Brackets and leave it at that.
Curiosity overcame me, however, and I tried to track down the complete original.
Here’s the quotation that prompted the reader’s question:
[We’ll] probably never quite know who was the greatest of all time in tennis,” Federer told reporters. ABC News (Australia)
Here’s the reader’s question:
Is it the case that the journalist is inputting the word ‘We’ll’ in order to make the quote from Federer more understandable as he left the word out in his verbal quote or rather that the word ‘we’ll’ is referring to an unknown group of people and the reader is to assume who the people are?
What appears to be the original quotation appears at Yahoo Sports. The story is credited to AP tennis writer Howard Fendrich:
Ask Federer to rank who the best players in history are and he won’t take the bait, saying something like what he said in Australia this week: “Probably never quite know who was the greatest of all-time in tennis, and I think that’s quite intriguing as well.”
Writer Fendrich avoids the problem of “correcting” the conversational original by placing it after a colon. The reader can assume that all the words within the quotation marks are exactly what Federer said.
In the ABC story, a writer or an editor preferred to use the “he said” construction so the bracketed [We’ll] was inserted. That’s ok. The brackets announce that the contraction did not appear in Federer’s original comment. However, if one reader found this “We’ll” confusing, chances are that others did too.
A third site using the Federer quotation uses the “We’ll” and drops the brackets:
We’ll probably never quite know who was the greatest of all time in tennis, and I think that’s quite intriguing as well,” he said. TVNZ
Different genres have different requirements. The writer of narrative non-fiction has the leeway to “improve” quotations. The writer of straight news has an obligation to quote exactly.
The transformation of the Federer quotation is interesting, not because it resulted in any major misrepresentation of what he said, but because it shows how quotations can mutate in the media.
Direct quotations enliven writing, but sometimes an indirect quotation that embeds a few words of the original may be a more accurate, less confusing way to go. For example:
Federer declined to rank the greatest all-time tennis players. He said that because of generational differences, we can “never quite know” who was the greatest.