Sunday, June 21, 2009

What he meant vs. what he said

Interesting question from distant climes* about this hed in the weekend Grauniad atop an interview with the prime minister. Nothing exceptional about it -- if, that is, the hed is an accurate representation of what he said. Here's the third graf from the 1A story:

"To be honest, you could walk away from all of this tomorrow," he said. "I'm not interested in what accompanies being in power. I wouldn't worry if I never returned to all those places - Downing Street, Chequers ... And it would probably be good for my children."

You -- I mean, I -- could?

In a fuller version of the interview (dear UK readers, did this appear in the print edn as well?), there's a parenthetical explanation of the quote:

"To be honest, you could walk away from all of this tomorrow." (He often says "you" to distance himself from the intended "I".) "I'm not interested in what accompanies being in power. I wouldn't worry if I never returned to all those places - Downing Street, Chequers ... And it would probably be good for my children."

That assertion about the distancing "you" might be entirely true (even though he uses "I" three tiimes and "my" once in the rest of the paragraph), and it's the sort of thing you hope a well-tuned-in reporter could provide to clarify a quote. But an quote with explanation in body type, inside the paper somewhere, isn't the same as a hed at the top of the front. So the question remains: Is the hed misleading?

I think so (even allowing for the vastly different ways British hed dialect uses quotation marks). Heds aren't good places for subtlety and ambiguity. The story (at least, the fuller, featurized version) has room for "He said A, but here's why it's reasonable to think he might have meant something like B." The hed proclaims he said B, and -- especially since the first appearance of the quote in text contradicts the hed -- that's a bad idea.

This one doesn't look amenable to fixing by fiddling around with the words. The exact quote, "you could walk away from this tomorrow," would be pretty strange -- not misleading, just baffling. Softening the "I" bit with "suggests" or "implies" seems to be where the writer is going, but it sounds more like warning than like speculation to me.. Best suggestion: Throw this idea out and start over.

* Onpassed by Garrett, to whom tnx.

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4 Comments:

Blogger John Cowan said...

I think this hed is perfectly fine, given that there aren't any actual quotation marks around it. In a non-newspaper context, I would rewrite it with quotes but with square brackets around the I.

The point of this head is to (a) communicate that Brown could walk away from this tomorrow, and (b) that that's his opinion, specifically. "Brown could walk away from this tomorrow" would be misleading, and a "Brown says" tag would be untrue. What we have here walks the narrow path between the two.

The only improvement I can suggest is to replace the dash, which does imply a literal quotation, with a colon, which does not. Consider the famous FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD hed from the New York Post; certainly President Ford didn't say those words, but that was his message, at least from the local point of view.

4:17 PM, June 21, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

How about

Brown: "could walk away from this tomorrow"

Or don't they use colons like that?

5:31 PM, June 21, 2009  
Blogger eMonkey said...

And behold, in the story linked to above there is now a colon instead of a dash. I'm used to the use of "you" in British English to mean something similar to "one", as in a hypothetical generic individual, but I don't know how common it is.

6:05 PM, June 22, 2009  
Anonymous Ed said...

I don't have that day's issue to hand any more, but I seem to recall the splash was a news write-off from the full interview in the magazine, in which case the online version will be a faithful transcript of the print version, including the parenthetical explanation.

I think I agree with John and eMonkey. It is a bit jarring, but what saves it is that there's no other really sensible interpretation of the quote. If 'you' doesn't mean 'one' - which indeed, as has been suggested, it commonly does -then the only thing he could have meant is something like "You, the reporter, could walk away from all this tomorrow... but I couldn't". And the second part of that quote seems to make it clear that he's talking about himself.

9:36 AM, June 24, 2009  

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