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Quoting Well, Part 2: When It’s OK, and Not OK, to Meddle

Part 1 of my advice on quoting covered practices widely accepted in scholarly writing. Also well accepted, but perhaps not so well understood, is that it is permissible to make certain changes in quoted text.

The suggestion of tinkering with the original text may strike writers as confusing and dangerous, since the first rule of quoting is to quote verbatim. Altering the original, we are taught, is for the lazy, devious, or even criminal. All true.

Nonetheless, there are some alterations writers and editors routinely and safely make to quotations because they serve the reader without violating the original text.

Footnote or endnote numbers. Normal practice is to drop note callouts from quoted text without comment. If it’s essential to include the note text as well, introduce it as a separate quotation.

Capitalization. Quoters normally change the initial casing of the first word of a quotation to fit the syntax of the introductory sentence.

Take Walter Raleigh: “Real novelty of vocabulary is impossible; in the matter of language we lead a parasitical existence, and are always quoting.” In that case, this quotation, “We lead a parasitical existence,” is appropriately capped, in spite of the lowercased “we” in the original. You can also safely write that “real novelty of vocabulary is impossible,” lowercasing the uppercased “Real” in the original to fit into your sentence.

Note: Some writers meticulously acknowledge the original casing with brackets: “[Q]uotation is a lazy folly” (Raleigh). But unless the precise casing is relevant to your own text (as in literary or linguistic studies), this borders on pedantry and can get in the way of reading.

Punctuation. The most common alteration of punctuation in quoting involves quotation marks. If an original text itself contains quoted words, those quotation marks should be changed from double to single (or vice versa) to mark a quote within a quote. My favorite example of nested quotation marks is the one used in The Chicago Manual of Style at 13.28, not only because it illustrates a quote within a quote within a quote, but because it hints of madness in doing so:

“Don’t be absurd!” said Henry. “To say that ‘I mean what I say’ is the same as ‘I say what I mean’ is to be as confused as Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. You remember what the Hatter said to her: ‘Not the same thing a bit! Why you might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’ ”

British-style punctuation is also fair game for restyling in American publications. This involves changing ‘inverted commas’ to double quotation marks, and relocating periods and commas that appear outside the marks, “like this”, so they are safely tucked “inside,” like that.

Spelling. Although spelling (including British spellings) in an original text should be faithfully preserved, an exception may be made to correct an obvious typo that has no significance to your work. If it seems best to preserve the typo, consider whether or not to flag it with [sic] (discussed in Part 1).

Syntax. Sometimes the perfect quotation would be slightly more perfect if only the original writer had anticipated how you would be using it. Brackets can show where you tweaked for your own purposes. Take Dennis Lee’s promise to Mr. Mole: “When you get here, I’ll land on your hair.” I might write that Lee tells children that “when [Mr. Mole gets] here, [Lee will] land on [the mole’s] hair.” Not that I advocate trashing the original to that extent, but you get my point.

Typography. If the original text is all italics or underlined or in caps, the quotation of it need not be. If the original italic text featured reverse italics for emphasis, the quoted text in roman type would use italics for emphasis. Writers typically ignore other cosmetic features of the original if they aren’t relevant to the writer’s own work: typeface, color, line breaks (except in poetry). If it’s important, by all means note the change: “The original appeared in all capitals.”

One last note about what must not be changed. Copy editors frequently write to me for permission to conform quoted texts to their house style, worrying about the apparent “inconsistency.” They would spell out numbers, take hyphens out of compounds, and alter olde-style or British spellings. It’s as though they fear that readers expect everything ever published to have been written in the same style and will hold a single editor responsible for exceptions. But of course that’s just silly.

Next time, Part 3: The dreaded dots. That is, working with ellipses.

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Quotations from Walter Raleigh are from his Style, 3rd ed. (London: Edward Arnold, 1898), 117. Quotation from Dennis Lee: Alligator Pie (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1963), 27.

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Readers may send Carol questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing. Write to her at AskCarolSaller@gmail.com. (Please ask questions about Chicago style here.)


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