Attributing Information

Readers judge the validity of information by knowing where it came from.

Books, scholarly articles, and some magazines can tell them in footnotes. Sometimes we inform the readers in an editor’s note at the end, or in a background passage, but mostly we attribute in the body text right next to the information. That way, the readers get information and attribution together without having to look elsewhere. Here’s a simple example:

“To be absolutely politically correct,” Janice snapped, “you’d have to call a man named Norman Goodman, ‘Norperson Goodperson.’”

The attribution, “Janice snapped,” identifies her as the source, and tells us how she said it. Many writing handbooks advise against using any attribution verb except “said.” But I don’t want to give up such a valuable tool for characterization. How speakers say something, not just what’s said, tells readers a lot about them.

On the other hand, waxing too poetic or using too many different attribution verbs gets tiresome to read. Avoid attributions that call attention to themselves, such as “she snorted” or “they blithered” or “he pompoted.” (I made up that last verb, meaning “to speak pompously.”) The greatest exception to this principle comes from Ring Lardner’s dialogue of a father and son:

“Are you lost, daddy,” I asked tenderly.
“Shut up,” he explained.

Notice the adverb “tenderly” modifying the verb, telling how the son asked. Some verbs have manner built in, such as “mumbled” or “shouted.” So you wouldn’t duplicate the action with an adverb, “shouted loudly,” unless maybe you’re as arch as Ring Lardner and write something like “shouted under her breath.”

Where do you put the attribution for a quote? It depends on what you want to emphasize. Traditionally newspapers put it at the end: “‘I’m sick and tired of being mayor,’ said the mayor.” But the end of a sentence is its most emphatic point, followed by the beginning. Only rarely would we want to emphasize the attribution.


“Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we’re free at last,” said Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King said, “Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we’re free at last.”
“Free at last, free at last,” said Martin Luther King, “great God almighty, we’re free at last.”
Here attributing in the middle puts the two strong elements in the two emphatic positions.

We also attribute facts to let readers judge them by where they came from. How would we attribute the two sentences quoted above from Ring Lardner? We could say in the text that the quotation came from Ring Lardner’s 1920 novel The Young Immigrunts. We could write a footnote: Lardner, Ring W., jr. The young immigrunts. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, [circa 1920], 78. I found the reference on the Internet at, like this:

Quotation #21226 from Rand Lindsly’s Quotations:
Shut up he explained.
Ring Lardner, The Young Immigrants, 1920
US author (1885-1933)

Now for an object lesson. If you stop digging when you find an easy Internet source, you might miss things and make mistakes.


Quotation #21226 above has misspelled the title of the book, which has “immigrunts,” not “immigrants.” The whole book, allegedly written by a four-year-old, captures the child’s erratic spelling, and so does the book title. Pursuing the original source, the book itself, I discovered that I had changed the spelling and punctuation of the exchange. “Picky, picky,” you’re thinking. “Accurate, accurate,” I’m thinking.

Journalists tend to say that every fact must be attributed, which leads to an annoying and dishonest practice. In a police story, for example, they’ll stick in “police said” or “according to police sources” after every sentence. The repetition annoys readers, puts them to sleep, and adds nothing to their knowledge or ability to judge validity. Even worse, some copy editors will add “police said” if the reporter left it out. A journalist friend of mine was involved in a huge traffic accident and added details to her story that she had witnessed herself. The next day, she discovered the desk had added “according to police sources” in the eyewitness part. Police didn’t say it, and it’s dishonest to put it in if they didn’t. Newspapers are not in the fiction business.

One way to deal with this urge to attribute everything involves what we call “umbrella attribution.” You start a section with “Police gave the following account,” and the readers know where it all came from. You never want readers to wonder where something came from, because a wondering reader is not paying attention. The test is not attributing everything. The test is giving your readers what they need to know about your information. This transparency also enhances your authority with your readers.

Finally, attribution thanks the people whose information you borrowed. Do unto others….

Published in: on January 22, 2009 at 9:48 am  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: