Inverted Quotes

You Can Quote Me

Though I realize that comment spamming is an increasing problem (it has happened to me recently, like many other people), I find it incredibly frustrating not to be able to respond to a post either through e-mail, comment, or track-back.

Language Log doesn’t even seem to have permalinks that work. It’s an unnecessary amount of frustration over a simple point— People are taught peculiar rules in using direct quotes in journalism classes which lead to strange and twisted constructions.

While I realize a complicated, sinister explanation might be preferred to a simple one, I do think the resident linguists there would be better served by looking at even a single journalism textbook than devising scientific tests to find out why quotes in popular publications are often inverted.

For example, even a glancing search online reveals a nice page on attribution for K-12 journalists. A quick look at the BBC Style guide under Reported Speech (page 60) shows indirectly why the preferred placement for attribution is at the end of the sentence— it is thought to be less confusing. Or for another example, this PDF Style Guide from clearly states on page 13: “11. Avoid beginning a one-sentence quotations with attribution. It is almost always better left at the end of the sentence.” This is not an unusual linguistic phenomenon, but rather the result of a dominant perception by editors that it is better to have an awkward construction than a confusing attribution.

Sheesh! I don’t understand why that would be an unconvincing hypothesis. After being hit over the head by a journalism teacher any time I deviated from their formulas for attribution, I am convinced that this simple form of negative reinforcement (an editor or teacher saying “That’s WRONG” anytime you use an attribution at the beginning of a sentence) is all there is to the prevalence of inverted quotes. Journalists actually think it is the right thing to do.

6 thoughts on “Inverted Quotes”

  1. But you’re lumping together two different points, attribution after the quote and the attribution’s syntax, and you haven’t addressed the latter, which is (after all) what they’re talking about. Why use the obviously awkward “…Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded by the Reverend Pat Robertson, says”?
    However, you’re absolutely right about their lack of comments, language hat, pseudonymous creator and sole author of the somewhat-heard-of language blog, Languagehat, said.

  2. I don’t see them as different points at all. If you look at the first document I linked, you will see that the syntax is carefully specified as part of their style rules:

    G6 Words of attribution should be placed in normal order. The subject should appear before the verb.
    Wrong: “We were really pumped for the championship game,” said he.
    Right: “We were really pumped for the championship game,” he said.

    The awkward syntax of always ending a quote with the verb “said” or “says” is also taught. Taught is actually a mild word for it– it is downright legislated that you must write in this form. They not only specify the order, but the syntax as well, in journalism textbooks.
    I found this type of construction nearly impossible to write and keep a straight face. This is one huge reason why becoming a journalist never appealed to me. Too many stupid language rules.

  3. I may be missing the point here, but my understanding of the BBC style guide is that changing a quote from direct to indirect is the way to go for maximum comprehensibility in spoken reporting.
    When using indirect quotation the attribution should also come before the quote so the listener can grasp who said it and evaluate it in that context immediately rather than retroactively.
    The style for the written content (eg the website) is different, and I agree about the unpleasant contortion in attribution. I also become distressed at what I consider to be the misplacing of punctuation such as full stops and commas in relation to the inverted commas.

  4. do i mean retrospectively? is there any such word as comprehnsibility? at least in radio nobody can hear your spelling.

  5. qb, you’re not missing the point, you just didn’t read far enough. The BBC style guide does recommend indirect rather than direct quotes for clarity in spoken compositions.
    However, on the second page of this section (60) they admit that attribuiting a quote at the beginning can cause confusion. A listener does not know when the attribution ends and the voice of the writer returns.
    While the situation for scriptwriters is different than that of print journalists, the focus on correct attribution is the same. In both genres, introducing a quote with attribution is seen as problematic in some cases.
    In print journalism, the edict is broadened to almost all cases. Some journalism textbooks literally state NEVER introduce a quote with its attribution. This combined with the rule that the subject must precede the verb causes the stylistic nightmare which the linguists are commenting on. Add a few parenthetical accreditations for your speaker prior to the verb, and the end result is a total mess.

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