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Quotes, partial and impartial

F
rom the Washington Post:

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution compares the escalating legal threats to "an arms race. This is so emblematic of our time: We see the legal process overwhelming the political process."

This sentence makes no sense, but 99 44/100 percent of copy editors would let it go through. What Mann did was compare the legal threats to an arms race. He then said those threats were emblematic of our time, blah, blah, blah. He did not say the legal threats were like an-arms-race-this-is-so-emblematic-of-our-time-we-see-the-legal-process-overwhelming-the-political-process. (Like so many of the points I feel most strongly about, this goes beyond style or grammar; to say the guy compared x to yzyzyzyz when in reality he simply compared x to y is factually incorrect.)

Here's how it should have been done:

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution compares the escalating legal threats to "an arms race."

"This is so emblematic of our time: We see the legal process overwhelming the political process," he said.

The difference between "full" and "partial" quotations goes beyond the issue of complete sentence vs. fragment. A full quote is "introduced" with a comma or a colon. A partial quote gets no such introduction, because it becomes part of the sentence in which it resides; a comma precedes the open-quote mark only if it would appear before an unquoted version of the same word or phrase. Writers who don't know any better combine the two forms, and the resulting mess resembles a transcript more than a story.

Sometimes this confusion extends beyond partial quotes -- instead of being a fan of "Ed," a discerning TV viewer might be described as a fan of, "Ed."

Aside from my book, the only place I've seen this subject discussed is an obscure 1979 textbook called "Editing in the Electronic Era." So congratulations to Martin L. Gibson of the University of Texas for cataloguing this kind of error, and a pardon to Mr. Gibson for considering 1979 "the electronic era."


Now what?

Move on to HE'S NOT MY GOVERNOR

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