Journalism 102: The Source’s Words Are Quotable, But His Grammar Is Awful. So…

By Mike Feinsilber

It’s a dilemma. Your news source issues a statement. You want to use the statement but it contains a sore-thumb grammatical error. Quote it anyway? Change it? Write around it? The dilemma often confronts reporters, as it confronted Emily Heil and Helena Andrews, who write The Reliable Source, a gossipish column in the Washington Post.

Their source was Jose Andres, “superchef with a growing national brand,” as Heil-Andrews branded him in the Post on July 9, when he reacted to Donald Trump’s racist rant (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) about undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Andres backed away from his deal to open a restaurant in a hotel that Trump intends to open in a federally owned building, the Old Post Office, on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Andres issued a statement:

“Donald Trump’s recent statements disparaging immigrants make it impossible for my company and I …” is how it started. Notable sentiment, bad grammar. The Reliable Source quoted it anyway.

He meant “my company and me.” A common mistake, the kind that New Yorker editor Mary Norton takes to task and beyond in her gleeful book about grammar and herself, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

From a writing point of view, the trouble with quoting a grammatical misstep anyway is that the error can be so distracting that the reader spends a quasi-second mulling over the mistake and not the message.

Simply fixing the chef’s grammar is journalistically out of bounds. Quote marks ought to surround what the gentleman said, not what he intended to say. President Obama sometimes says and is quoted as saying “Michelle and myself,” when he means “Michelle and I” or “Michelle and me,” depending on whether they’re acting or being acted upon. And he gets quoted that way.

What to do about an ungrammatical quote from the lips of a man-in-the-street or a profane quote from an athlete whose opinion has been solicited by a reporter is another issue. After all, you approached the guy. If he responds in his everyday language (“Between you and I, they ought to rip that damn flag into a thousand pieces”), should you make him look foolish before 100,000 pairs of eyes?

As I say, it’s a dilemma. I tend to decide case by case. In the example above, I’d edit the “between you and I” out of his statement.

If you see an inconsistency between what I initially wrote—that all quotes must be the source’s exact words—and what I’m now saying—you can fix the grammar in some—you’re right. I make a distinction between quotes from official government or corporate sources, which usually have the benefit of professional help (flacks, lawyers, committees) and quotes from ordinary people who the reporter has stopped on the street and who speak extemporaneously as a favor. If that guy says something ungrammatical, I’m willing to fix the language. It’s not fair to ask a person a question and then set his grammatical error before 200,000 eyes.

One way out—often chosen, rarely pretty—is to quote as much of the statement as is grammatical and paraphrase the rest. So one could tap out:

The chef said: “Donald Trump’s recent statement disparaging immigrants” made it impossible for him to open the restaurant.

But that kind of hybrid—part quote, part paraphrase—is awkward and often confusing. The reader, rather than reading, wonders what’s been left out, and why.

So, for the prepared statement from a figure who should know better (which I suspect was the case in chef Jose’s statement), that leaves only one choice: Paraphrase, the journalist’s good, if bland, friend. That’s what I would do. I’d write it:

Andres said Trump’s remark made it impossible for him to open a restaurant at his hotel. “More than half of my team is Hispanic, as are many of our guests,” he said. “And as a proud Spanish immigrant and recently naturalized American citizen myself, I believe that every human being deserves respect, regardless of immigration status.”

It isn’t pretty, but it isn’t wrong. Sometimes in journalism you’ve got to chose what’s right even if what’s fun is more fun.
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. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

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