The Grumpy Grammarian: When Accuracy Isn't

I was going to start this column with a quote taken from the newspaper. But then I got to thinking about quotes in the newspaper and decided to first discuss something that bothers me—though it’s not a point of grammar but a matter of debate, I suppose.

I generally object to the practice, which has been in existence for at least 20 or 30 years now, of reporters transcribing, verbatim, what people say to them. I don’t mean, of course, that journalists should twist people’s words and write “blue” when an interviewee said “red.” I’m talking about the habit of “preserving” the grammatical mistakes that people make when speaking.

For a hypothetical example (based on material that I have read in the past), suppose a mother is talking about her son’s possible knowledge of some activity, criminal or otherwise. The newspaper story might read, “Mrs. M. said, ‘He don’t know nothin’ ’bout it.”

I ask you: Why couldn’t that quote be rendered as “Mrs. M. said, ‘He doesn’t know anything about it’”?

Because that’s not what she said—because that’s not how she said it you might reply.

And I would ask, “What purpose does it serve? Why is it so important to render her statement exactly?”

Or—when, exactly, does “accuracy” become malice or a cover for malice?

If you’re writing a story, you make your characters speak in dialect or slang or imperfect English in order to characterize them thus and so. However, if you’re writing a news story, is it necessary to reveal a person’s socio-economic background and/or lack of education and/or race or ethnicity via these verbal “clues”? Doing so, it strikes me, is a way of influencing the reader’s attitude toward the speaker—reinforcing prejudices or stereotypes (or, if we’re being charitable, attempting to elicit sympathy).

(If you think it’s “dishonest” to change a person’s words, you can always revert to indirect discourse instead—“Mrs. M. said her son didn’t know anything about the matter”—thus relieving yourself of the dilemma of whether to “quote accurately” or not.)

I have picked a perhaps “extreme” example of verbatim transcription, but I can suggest other, less “loaded” examples that still bug me. If interviewers would stop repeating exactly what interviewees spoke into their recording devices, we might end up with a clearer picture of the subject and a generally better level of discourse in this country.

Nowadays, practically every damn time some celebrity responds to questions put to him/her by a journalist, s/he talks about how s/he “feels like.”

We have been over this before, haven’t we? You can indeed “feel like” in certain constructions but not when a subject and a verb follow. “I feel like a jerk for saying ‘feel like’ so much”—that’s acceptable. “I feel like he’s picking on me because I say ‘feel like’ so much”—that’s not.

You don’t say, “I think like you’re picking on me”; “I believe like there’s a God”; “I assume like you love me”—DO YOU? By the same token, you don’t say “feel like” in those circumstances. “I feel that” or simply “I feel” will do just fine, thank you.

I feel it would be just heavenly if reporters would do a bit of clean-up when they post/print their interviews, thus helping the interviewee to sound more intelligent than s/he perhaps is. (Of course, there’s always the possibility that the writer intends to do a hatchet job and therefore wants to expose the interviewee’s ignorance about the proper way of speaking.)

About 10 years ago, when I was freelancing as a writer and editor, I used to do interviews for a foodservice magazine. I would talk to people who held different positions in a restaurant and then tell readers about their profession “in their own words.” Now, I wasn’t using a tape recorder or other device to record their words; I was taking notes as fast as I could, so I couldn’t necessarily write out their verbatim responses if I had wanted to.

But I didn’t want to. People don’t always express themselves as clearly as they would like. It seems to me that part of the interviewer’s job—especially in these non-confrontational, informational conversations—is to make the interviewee look good. So I would polish the language, make the speech a little more coherent. Nobody whom I interviewed ever objected to the words I put in his/her mouth. They either appreciated the fact that I made them sound better or (more likely) probably thought that what I wrote was what they had said in the first place.

Heck, don’t our politicians get the chance to revise anything they say before it gets published in the Congressional Record?

But this tendency to duplicate exactly whatever people utter, under the guise of being honest or printing the “truth,” does a disservice, I think, to speakers and readers alike.

A news story will carry remarks made by the President or a member of congress, and the person will have stuttered or repeated himself or not agreed a subject with a verb—and the news story will include these instances of misspeaking in the text. To what end? What for? Simply to show that, when people speak extemporaneously, they make mistakes? That, to me, seems messy and unnecessary.

Because, if you want to gauge the intelligence or lack thereof of a political figure, you don’t have to include every single one of his/her rhetorical stumblings to reveal how much or how little s/he knows.

Which brings me to the quote that fueled my entire train of thought. Granted, it’s taken out of context, but I can’t imagine what context one could possibly put it in:

“A question was asked to me. And it was asked in a very hypothetical. And it was said, ‘Illegal, illegal,’” [he] said. “I’ve been told by some people that was an older line answer and that was an answer that was given on a, you know, basis of an older line from years ago on a very conservative basis.”

This response reveals a mind that has difficulty formulating thoughts, let alone sentences. I might “spiff up” the preceding by trying to “help” the speaker a little bit:

“A question was asked of me. And it was asked in a very hypothetical manner.”

Even that “fix” is not so good. All that the speaker seems to be saying in those first two sentences can be boiled down to six words: “Someone asked me a hypothetical question.” But, after that, no amount of doctoring is going to make this soup of words palatable.

So now have I ended up at the opposite end from where I began? (Am I doing a hatchet job?) I still feel strongly that it’s unnecessary to reveal a speaker’s shortcomings and risk embarrassing him/her. I think silent emendations of obvious errors of speech are acceptable—honorable, even. But, when you’re faced with a wall of words built on questionable logic, there’s nothing to do but let the utterance speak for itself.

I would be happy to hear from any journalists out there who agree or disagree with me—who think my approach is either permissible or a violation of reportorial ethics.

Thank you, and good day.

Anthony Ambrogio,