Friday, April 09, 2004

"(Using parentheses in quotes) seemed like a good idea," he said.
If you are using parentheses in quotes, it usually means you need to take a hard look at what you've written. Parentheses in quotes are:

  • Weak, disruptive writing.

  • A signal that you likely have not set up the quote correctly.

  • An invitation for readers to trust us even less, wondering what we've left out, covered up, changed or added.


It's that last one that bothers me the most at a time when we have trouble enough maintaining our credibility. And please, let's not start with the square brackets vs. parentheses thing -- that's a journalistic affectation that has no meaning to readers. (Go ahead, take me up on this bet: Go out on the street and ask 20 people if they know the difference between parentheses and square brackets in your paper. If you can find just five, we'll think of something special for you.) And my paper doesn't come with a user's manual or decoder ring.
Parentheses are especially jarring to begin a quote.
And finally, parentheses too often subtly tell the reader you're too stupid to understand in context what originally was said. Not a winning strategy in my book.

Here's one from a paper this morning on a mall that will require escorts for those younger than 18 on weekend nights:
Several customers have complained about groups of juveniles blocking mall corridors, said Rich Davis, store manager at J.C. Penney. He said the new policy is sure to increase sales.
"(Customers) have told me they won't shop here at night," Davis said. "(The mall) is a hangout. Unfortunately, some parents think they can drop off kids that are 14, 15, even younger. This is not a baby-sitting service."


I'm betting that under (Customers) was the word they. If so, is anyone going to think they refers to anyone other than customers given the lead-in? And if it was something else -- something so weird it had to be covered up -- move Customers outside the quote.
What about (The mall)? My bet: It covered up this or it. Again, is anyone likely to really think that refers to anything other than the mall? But OK, maybe someone might think it refers to J.C. Penney. Then move it outside the quote and pick up the quote in progress.
So if we say we need (Customers) and (The mall) -- both debatable -- then handle it this way:

Several customers have complained about groups of juveniles blocking mall corridors, said Rich Davis, store manager at J.C. Penney. He said the new policy is sure to increase sales.
Customers "have told me they won't shop here at night," Davis said.
The mall "is a hangout," he said. "Unfortunately, some parents think they can drop off kids that are 14, 15, even younger. This is not a baby-sitting service."


Editors should take a hard look whenever they come across parenthetical material in quotes. Once in a great while, perhaps. But I can't think of a time I've seen one begin a quote that couldn't be strengthened.

7 Comments:

At 5/11/07, 9:00 AM, Anonymous Sheridan Slatter said...

Hi there. Nice discussion. Just a question about this particular quote I read:

"Once you have a marsupial that can do something that a human or mouse can't do, you can compare the two," he added. "We're saying, wait, wait, it may not be that hard to grow spinal cords. Our closest cousins can do it. Let's see what tricks [they] have."

So why do they put 'they' in brackets?

 
At 5/11/07, 11:49 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

That's a good question -- and one of the problems of brackets and parentheses. The brackets technically mean the reporter has inserted a word of his or her own where none existed before. So did the person really say "Let's see what tricks have"?

And if the reporter was replacing a word already there (for which it actually should be parentheses), what on earth could the person have said besides "they"?

The fact that it raises all those questions in your head as a reader is exactly the reason to avoid it.

 
At 12/14/10, 7:03 PM, Anonymous Ron McCranie said...

I'm not a journalist, not even close. But while trying to write content for a website project I needed to give user feedback as close to the original words as possible. However, when someone pointed at something on a webpage during a usability study, I think I had no choice but to use brackets and insert the technical term for what they were pointing at.

Does this sound permissible?
"make that more visible, like tabs."
or
"make [sub-navigation] more visible, like tabs."

 
At 12/15/10, 11:06 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I don't want to make it seem like there is an absolute prohibition on brackets - just that they should be avoided and in most cases, with a tad more care, can be.

But in this case, the use seems perfectly reasonable. (And you are doing it in a research context, it seems, not journalistic, so detail like this can be even more important.)

Doug

 
At 11/24/11, 12:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Genius! I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for making sense of it. Happy Turkey Day!

 
At 10/6/13, 7:02 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Doug, I gathered from your article that it doesn't matter if journalists use brackets or parentheses because the difference is lost on most people. Could you settle for me, though, whether brackets are required if the author inserts a word of his own choosing into a quote? A local newspaper here never uses brackets in such instances. In scholarly writing it's cut and dry.

 
At 10/7/13, 9:48 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Matt:

It's really a style issue, and some eschew brackets. I prefer using brackets when a word is inserted, but as you note, that's code among us, not necessarily readers.

The real question is can the setup be improved so that the parenthetical material is not needed.

Doug

 

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