Meaningless quotes by non-entities

Good things happen whenever I clean out my old emails. Here is one from our editor at The Economist, John Micklethwait, regarding the use and misuse of quotations in writing:

At our meeting on Friday I read out part of a letter … by Alan Parker, who used to work for us in the 1970s, and its main point was to explain – in a touchingly matter-of-fact way – that he had just discovered that he was about to die (which he did indeed do two weeks after he sent the letter). … I still think one part of it is worth passing on:

“I shall continue to read The Econ for the rest of my life, as my sub will outlast me. I shall enjoy it of course, but I should enjoy it even more if my death-wish could be granted: viz, that the editor decrees that henceforth all meaningless and trivial quotes should be excised before the copy gets anywhere near him. I cannot abide the constant oscillation between (a) serious reporting, and (b) meaningless quotes by non-entities. All I want is the story, clear and concise and preferably with a bit of style. As soon as I get to “Joe Bloggs, an accountant, says ‘these are big numbers'”, I turn over the page….”

I think he had a point. One of our hallmarks has always been avoiding the gratuitous quotes that slow down our rivals. Obviously, we should quote people when they are saying something new and refreshing – just as we should credit other news organisations. And I also accept that good sources occasionally need some form of payback; but, if you want to bring them into the story, make sure they are saying something that is original, which does not slow down the piece.

In general, our rule with quotes should be that either the singer or the song should be interesting. Thus “America is in trouble in Iraq” is worth using only if, say, the speaker is George Bush. But I would add three particular bugbears of mine. The first is beginning a paragraph with a general quote from an uninteresting source (“America is in trouble in Iraq” says Dwight Smith of the Foreign Policy Institute), when we are really just introducing a new part of our argument – and very little of what follows could be seen as Mr Smith’s unique insight. Quote Mr Smith later by all means if he has uncovered a new fact about National Guard numbers, or use him as an example of one side of a debate; but don’t hand over the paragraph to him – unless he deserves it. Second, where we do quote, we should whenever possible simplify intrusively long titles (so “Professor Dr John Smith, head of special research projects at the Joe. A. Doe  Global New Media Centre at Massachessetts Institute of Technology” becomes John Smith of MIT). And, lastly, one word is often preferable to a full quote: “This research strikes me, on the basis of available evidence, as dubious,” said Professor John Smith etc can happily become, “The research is “dubious”, reckons John Smith of MIT”.

The alternative is more people turning over the page.


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5 thoughts on “Meaningless quotes by non-entities

  1. I reckon the Economist uses the word reckon frequently. Since we’re learning about quotations, I have to ask, is a quotation really a reckon? Having checked the dictionary, it seems that reckon is more appropriate for an opinion than a quotation. I guess a quotation could represent something that someone reckons. Does the Economist have a position on the use of reckon?

  2. Hi Mr Crotchety,
    we do indeed seem to reckon a lot. I’ve never really understood why, but over the years even I have begun to reckon here and there. As in this context:
    “The end is nigh,” reckons John Smith, an analyst at…
    I think it’s just a way to avoid saying “says” over and over. “Thinks” is one option.
    For some reason, whenever I write something more descriptive like “quips” after a quote, some editor will usually change it to, well, “says” or “reckons”.

    • The Economist says ‘reckon’ so often that I was forced to do a web search on it to find out if there was any official position on it because it is said so often and seems to differ from other publications. I do not know why, but I find it very annoying. By they way I never ever make comments like this but feel obliged. Anyway I thought that I was going to discover a rule within English that I was not aware of because The Economist is a great magazine and I would imagine prides itself on its use of the English language, but maybe no it is just an anomaly? That is a tad disappointing to be honest!

    • Hi Peter Mac.

      To tell you the truth, I am also annoyed by all the reckonings. So I hereby pledge to stop using the word “reckon”. Mind you, you might still find it in my stories from time to time if an evil editor puts it in.

      That said, you have even uglier versions:

      “XYZ notes John Smith….”.

      Perhaps John Smith should henceforth neither “reckon” nor “note” but simply “think” or “believe” or “say” or “quip” or “hint”….

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