What He Said or What He Meant?

By Mike Feinsilber

We don’t speak the way we write. We don’t speak the way Mrs. Arch in fifth grade would have had us speak. In everyday speech, we tend to make small grammatical errors. But what if the guy listening is a reporter and he, or his tape recorder, takes down the error?

On Saturday, November 22, 2014, the New York Times ran a wet kiss of an article about Atticus Lish, unknown son of a well-known author, Gordon Lish. Atticus has published a novel, Preparations for the Next Life, that is causing excitement among the critics. The critic of the Times, Dwight Garner, called it “indelible” and “perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade.” Publishers Weekly called it “stunning.”

Good. But in a deep paragraph Times reporter John Williams writes:

“Mr. Lish said he was especially interested in the places where urban and rural begin to overlap—’who pops up next to who?’”

Uh-oh, say the purists: It should be “who pops up next to whom.” Whom is the object of the preposition. (But if you asked, “Who is the object of the preposition?,” the purist would smile. Ah, grammar.)

Williams heard Atticus say “who” and that’s the way he wrote it. The desk didn’t blink.

Some reporters and some editors think it is their job to put down what the person said and not to go fixing anyone’s grammar. A quote, they believe, is a reproduction of exactly what the guy said. Other reporters and editors know that all of us make little grammatical mistakes and we should not hold the people they quote to an impossible standard.

It’s a dilemma. In my 50 years as a writing newsie, sometimes I fixed my source’s grammar and sometimes I didn’t. I guess I was half coward and half right. But I don’t know which half was which. Whomever.

Mike Feinsilber spent a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach.


  1. Sports stories drive me crazy sometimes. Last season, the quotes from various Wizards players and Coach Randy Wittman were often difficult to decode. The writer apparently did not think it necessary to interpret for us or paraphrase. I think the reporter has a duty to the reader to fix the ungrammatical when it makes comprehension, uh, incomprehensible.

    OK, needed an editor there. But you get the idea.

  2. This was a great article. I have often struggled with the issue of whether I should, or should not correct the grammar in sources comments. Most often I have opted to simply print it as spoken. After reading your article, I will give consideration to asking my sources for permission to “upgrade” thier lingo. My recent publication http://awritersstorm.jamesctanner.com/ didn’t touch on your points and perhaps it should have. I’m glad to see it addressed so well here.

Speak Your Mind