Lexicon Valley

Sometimes, Reporters ​Should Clean Up Ungrammatical Quotes

Carlos Gómez of the Houston Astros

Bob Levey/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, sports writer Brian T. Smith wrote a column for the Houston Chronicle about an outfielder for the Astros, Carlos Gómez, who has gotten off to a slow start this season. Smith interviewed the Dominican-born Gómez and quoted him exactly, relaying his words as follows: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”

The quote stood out, because sports writers don’t usually transcribe so precisely the words of players for whom English is their second language. Usually, sports writers clean those quotes up. (Even Breitbart has rendered Go-Go’s speech with correct, if informal, grammar.) Critics, including Gómez himself, took Smith to task for seeming to mock the athlete’s incorrect English. Chronicle editor Nancy Barnes apologized, citing “less than adequate” AP guidelines on quoting news sources who did not grow up speaking George Washington’s tongue. On Deadspin, Tom Ley suggested that Gomez “has a right to be annoyed” that a reporter “went off and made him look dumb by not extending him a courtesy that most people quoted by reporters get”: that of subtly tweaked sentences.

Not everyone agrees. Over at ESPN’s brand-new site the Undefeated, J.A. Adande used the incident to inveigh against the cleaning up of quotes. “Since when should journalists apologize for being accurate?” Adande asked. Doesn’t objectivity demand absolute faithfulness to what a person says, not what he means to say?

But context matters. It’s common practice in journalism for writers quoting sources to remove filler words—like, ah, um—and correct tiny grammatical violations. (Slate’s policy is to handle such issues on a case-by-case basis, but many writers at the magazine I spoke to told me they make such elisions and alterations all the time.) This is done to present information to readers as clearly as possible. It services the idea that we should be focusing on the content of the quote, not the slight infelicities that distinguish spoken from written English. It’s also done because writers scribbling in notebooks are unlikely to recall every twist and turn of a quote, and tend to streamline and standardize sentences in their notes.

So that expectation of unfailing accuracy is already misplaced. But Adande argues further that fixing quotes patronizes sources, implying that their words “are inherently inferior and must be corrected.” Yes, this is a problem when, for instance, white newsrooms insist on doctoring the expressions of black people to make them conform to Standard English—as if Black English were not a legitimate dialect on its own.

But we are not talking here about established vernaculars like AAE. We are talking about the imperfect phrases of a non-native English speaker—phrases that, quoted exactly, read to many readers (including, in this case, the subject himself) as a writer needlessly lampooning a source’s manner of speech. “Reasonable people can make allowances for those who use English as a second language,” Adande wrote, referring to Gómez. “Instead of teasing them for their shortcomings, we can applaud them for successfully conveying their thoughts.”

But the role of journalists is neither to tease nor to applaud, but to deliver information as clearly and truthfully as possible. To include a grammatical error in a news story is to hint that such error is somehow significant, rather than something most of us do when we are asked to extemporize aloud. Certainly, there are times when replicating someone’s exact rhetorical tics on paper illumines a deeper truth. But what was Smith illuminating by preserving Gómez’ broken English in an article about his .226 batting average? What cultural heritage was he honoring? What characterological or intellectual traits did he highlight?  

Gomez read the untweaked quote as an unkindness, as many readers did. Gómez was right, and Smith was wrong, and you can quote me on that.