More on Obscenity

In my post on “Using Obscenity,” I discussed different ways to handle obscene language. Here’s a new one, with Gail Collins’s typical comic understatement:
“Plus, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas says that when he thanked Boehner for standing up to King, Boehner responded, ‘What an ass.’ I’m editing, but you get the idea.” New York Times, 2-8-2014, A17.

Published in: on February 8, 2014 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Using obscenity

Decisions on quoting obscenities depend on the policies of the publication, usually enforced by editors. Any obscenity, even “heck” or “darn,” will offend somebody, and publications differ in how offensive they choose to appear. Rolling Stone and Taste of Home publish in different universes.

So-called “family newspapers” are particularly prissy, based on the idea that children should never read “bad” language. Actually, the children I know talk dirtier than I do. The truth is, newspaper editors can’t stand irate calls from retired English teachers at 10 a.m.

We have a whole arsenal of tactics for dealing with obscenity: deleting it, quoting it verbatim, paraphrasing it, labeling it, writing around it, and coding the offensive words.

Sometimes you just quote it. If you’re writing about what someone said, and how it was said is important, your readers will wonder what you’re talking about if you don’t tell them. When former Vice President Cheney hurled an obscenity, the public had a right to know what he said that caused the fuss. Whatever readers imagine will probably be worse than the actual quote.

You can code the offending words. A famous blast of expletives erupted at the end of a football game in Tampa between the Jets and the Bucs. Millions of fans heard it all as parabolic microphones broadcast the exchanges on television. Here are some excerpts from a local paper trying to capture the action without offending kiddies or little old ladies:

1. What the Jets said was, “%%&**!!!” or words to that effect.
2. A gutter of four-letter words bubbled from angry New York Jets.
3. “McKay, you’re an ——-,” screamed one New York Jet.
4. “McKay, you’re an a–hole,” shouted offensive lineman Ted Banker.
5. “F— you,” McKay shot back.

The first two examples leave readers who didn’t watch the game wondering what was yelled. The third one, my favorite, tries to hide the word “asshole” by coding it with dashes. Readers, of course, will feel compelled to decode it, so they have to search their entire obscene vocabulary for a seven-letter word beginning with a vowel! Numbers four and five don’t hide anything; they just create an appearance of propriety. I’ve protected the newspaper, by the way, the St. P——–g T—s, by coding its title.

You may end up emphasizing obscenity by not quoting it and playing with the naughtiness of language, as in this example: “Ellis, known for a brand of psychotherapy called Rational-Emotive Therapy, seasons his talks with a generous sprinkling of words that end in s—. As in bull and horse.” Or this one: “All she has to do is get them to her appointed contact, but it’s obvious in that parking garage that the milk is spilt, the cat’s out of the bag, and the you-know-what has hit the fan.”

Political correctness winks at offensive language, as when we use such common euphemisms as “the N-word” or “the F-word,” as in this example: “She uses the ‘f’ word, and she uses it a lot, usually as a transitive verb.” The insertion “[Expletive deleted]” calls attention to the fact that the speaker used an expletive; readers usually assume the worst expletives. Remember the Nixon tapes?

Let’s go back to first principles and ask why you would ever publish any obscenity:
· The obscenity is the news.
· We want to characterize someone who swears a lot.
· We have to use a quote that has obscenity in it.

In any context in any publication, obscenity jumps off the page, and can distract readers, even very sophisticated or dirty-minded readers. We must balance this distraction, this break in the flow of reading, against the specificity of the obscenity. Every word you write must have meaning and purpose, so you would never use obscenity gratuitously. You would delete it unless it is germane to a quote. If you must use an obscenity, I believe you should publish it verbatim, full force.

Here’s a tricky exception. Obscenity may be part of your voice, in a publication that allows it. In that case, let ‘er rip.

[Let’s hear your views on this controversial stance. Anybody want to contribute anecdotes?]

Published in: on June 15, 2009 at 9:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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Using the notes mode

Many publications have what we call “the notes mode.” This handy feature allows writers to send messages to their editors inside their texts. The software prevents these insertions from printing or appearing on readers’ screens. Unfortunately, sometimes the system fails to block them.

The commonest message is “CQ,” which means, “I have checked this, and it is correct.” We use it to mark names, phone numbers, URLs, etc. CQ essentially tells the editors that they don’t have to check this item; smart editors take that with a grain of salt. The passage might look like this, depending on the system: “The latest blog post appears at [CQ] and at [CQ].”

Any violation of the publication’s stylebook, profanity or obscenity, or deliberate misspelling should be marked and explained. When copy editors encounter such variants without explanation, they tend to chop them out.

For example, the “Second Reference Rule,” honored by many publications, says that names lose their titles when they appear for a second time in a piece. So “Circuit Judge Henry Smith” on first reference becomes “Smith” on the second. If you violate that rule, you explain it in the notes mode, like this: “BOTH THE DEFENSE ATTORNEY AND THE JUDGE ARE NAMED ‘SMITH,’ SO I HAVE USED THE JUDGE’S TITLE IN LATER REFERENCES.”

You might indicate deliberate misspellings, as in this sentence from my recent post on spell checkers: “For instance, I type ‘orginization’ every time I mean ‘organization,’ and spell ‘chairman’ as ‘chariman.’” The note might read, “NOTE TWO WORDS MISSPELLED ON PURPOSE.” If you put “CQ” on the misspelled words, the desk would get confused.

You can indicate potential cuts in the notes mode, a trick I learned from Dave Barry. Knowing that your editors might have to shorten your piece, you help them by marking passages to cut, including the sequence of removal. Before the cuttable part, you put “BEGIN POTENTIAL CUT ONE.” At the end, you say, “END POTENTIAL CUT ONE.” Paranoid reporters assure me that anything you mark as cuttable will get whacked out. My experience is the opposite. Editors don’t cut me; they cut people who write long and don’t help their colleagues on the desk.

WARNING. Since the software sometimes fails, particularly when a print piece is posted online later, do not include anything in the notes mode that you don’t want to appear. Like this: “I DON’T HAVE A RESPONSE FROM THE RESTAURANT OWNER BECAUSE THE ASSHOLE WON’T RETURN MY CALLS.”

As a freelancer, I don’t have a notes mode, so I create my own. I put messages in brackets and all caps, like this: [[[I CAN’T FIND THE PRICE OF THIS BOOK]]].” I hope my editors will take that out, but just in case, I’m very careful what I put in my jury-rigged notes mode.

[Any adventures with the notes mode you’d like to share?]

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 8:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cleaning up quotes

With quotations, you have four choices: paraphrase, clean up, fragmentary, or verbatim. Actually verbatim quoting is rare because most sources don’t speak clearly enough for prose.

Sources mostly tell us things in conversation, and we have to convert what they say to make it work in prose.

In conversation, the audience is present with the speaker, so you can use informal grammar, pronouns, and gestures, both physical and vocal. I can point to a member of an audience and say, “He’s the one to lead us out of this mess.” If you see the one I pointed at, no problem, but if you’re not present, you have to guess which male I meant. Or I might have said, “Our leader,” as I pointed him out; people who aren’t there will get confused by the sentence fragment. And I might have rolled my eyes as I spoke and pointed, but you weren’t there and didn’t catch that I was mocking him.

In prose, the audience is not present, and we have to turn gestures into description, substitute nouns for pronouns, use more formal grammar, etc. So most quotations have to be messed with, so readers can understand them. Verbatim quoting rarely happens, despite the rhetoric of American journalism that everything between quote marks is exactly as spoken.

Take fillers, for example. We routinely delete fillers such as “well,” “um,’ you know,” etc. They’re really a form of oral punctuation, and we don’t notice them in conversation. But they jump off the page or screen if you leave them in, especially a lot of them. Sometimes we leave one or two in, especially “you know,” just to keep the quote sounding conversational. But if readers notice them, you lose the effect.

Writers routinely and silently clean up quotations, correcting grammatical errors, deleting obscenity, etc. Your source says, “That goddamn pack of thieves up there, you know, are in bed with them.” Problems: swearing, subject-verb disagreement, unclear geographic reference, and an unspecified pronoun. So the quote will probably get manipulated into something like this: “That pack of thieves up there [in Washington] is in bed with [the health-care industry].” And your editor will question the sexual slang of “in bed with.” The messed-with quote is still a mess. So what to do?

First and foremost, you can paraphrase it. In general, if you can write it better than the source said it, you should. Two dominating principles: you have to get it right, and your readers have to understand it. So it might come out like this: “Smith said that Congress is collaborating with the health-care companies.”

Or you can clean it up a little, taking out the filler and the swearing, correcting the grammar, and clarifying the groups involved. And it comes out like this: “Smith criticized both the Congress and the health-care industry: ‘That pack of thieves up there is in bed with them.’” We usually make grammatical changes silently (“are” to “is”) because it might take too much apparatus to tell readers what we did.

Or you can shrink the quote to a couple of fragments, like this: “Smith said that Congress, ‘that pack of thieves,’ is ‘in bed with’ the health-care industry.” You gain in clarity, but the quote is hard to read, and readers will wonder what you left out.

Or you could leave it verbatim and indicate all the changes you made, like this: “That … pack of thieves up there [in Washington] … are [sic] in bed with them [the health-care industry].” See, the more you have to do to make a quote work, the worse it gets, although it’s clearer.

All of these tactics, even verbatim quoting, are a form of fiction. What you publish is not exactly what the person said or how it was said. You have to judge just how fictional you want to be. In hard cases, consult your editor.

You have one other option: leave the quote out. Faced with a problematic quote, ask yourself, “Will this quote add to my reader’s understanding, or do I just want to put it in because I like it? Is it worth all the apparatus I’ll need to make it intelligible?” More often than not, you’ll delete both the quote and the problem.

One other tactic happens much earlier, during interviews. You hear what could make a good quote, but it’s a mess. So you lean forward and say to your subject, “Oh, stop, that’s good, but I didn’t get it all down. Could you say it again?’ And it comes out better the second time. I once asked a source to repeat what she had just said, using nouns for the pronouns. It worked.

[Got any anecdotes about struggling with quotes?]

Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 1:30 pm  Comments (2)