“Don’t clean up the quotes.” Ever been given that instruction? Ever thought it unfair?
People don’t speak smoothly. Not most people. Their speech is full of hesitations, corrections, and — if you’re like me — outright flubs. I tend to combine terms in bizarre ways when I can’t decide which to use on the fly: “child labour” results when I mean “child birth or being in labour.” So if you’re quoting my thoughts about giving birth, I’d appreciate your help in not sounding idiotic.
On the other side of the issue, sometimes the person’s exact words are important. I’m not advocating that we edit transcriptions or fix up statements made in legal contexts. I’m talking about cases when that person’s voice, their word choice and syntax, and the rhythm of what they say are important.
“I was editing a book about mental health,” said Elizabeth d’Anjou, the veteran editor and editing instructor in Toronto who brought this issue up at a meeting of the Editor’s Association of Canada. “That included both academic articles and personal accounts by people who had been treated for mental health issues. I had been told not to correct the personal accounts, so as to retain the voices of their writers.
“Then I thought: I’m cleaning up the infelicities in the pieces by doctors and scholars; why shouldn’t the patients get the same courtesy?”
Equal treatment sounds like a good argument in favour of editing direct quotes. If I’ve fixed the scholar’s use of “the juts and bolts,” does the person they’ve quoted deserve to have their error pointed out by a [sic] after the juts?
Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor, has several thoughts on the matter. Do you agree with the three of us? Where do you draw the line?