Thursday, June 24, 2010

Get your hand off that key!

Scanning the Freep from afar, an alert reader wonders about the punctuation in the second and third grafs here, from the latest installment in the Kwame Kilpatrick saga:

The indictment did not include public corruption charges, a point Kilpatrick spokesman Mike Paul seized upon.

He called speculation that the former mayor was involved in bribery schemes "lies from the pit of hell!"

"The FBI found nothing remotely close to that in their investigation because it never happened!"

Specifically, why does the ex-mayor's spokesman get to award himself a couple of bangers, whereas the feds (one can only hope that the Freep's relentless drive toward tabloidism will turn them into G-men before long) are stuck with some measly periods and commas?

Granted, some quotes are just not amenable to the magic of the exclamation point, so you can see why the Freep resisted the temptation. We'll just Photoshop one in to an actual quote for you here, by way of illustration:

"Investigation into corruption in municipal government continues!" U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said late Wednesday.

And yes, in case you were wondering, that's how the quotes and attribution appear in print as well. Is there a good reason for this sort of punctuational deck-stacking?

Best guess (as always, better or more informed ones are welcome), the response is pasted from an e-mail. That's not illegitimate, though it's fairly common to distinguish written responses ("said in an e-mail") from spoken ones -- particularly when there's a graphic feature that the writer is trying to reproduce. In an unorthodox case like this one, that practice looks particularly important.

I think there's a case for losing the damn thing altogether, particularly in the second example; paraphrase and trim the quote down to "because it never happened," stick in some attribution (which wouldn't hurt anyway), and pick up with the following sentence. The first is trickier. When it comes to correcting the comma splices and greengrocer's apostrophes that writers stick into other people's quotes, I'm in the "people don't speak punctuation; just fix it" camp. The question mark is the obvious exception. I wouldn't make the same case for every stray exclamation point, but "lies from the pit of hell!" is the sort of case that tests the rule.*

We don't know, of course, how much tweaking might have already been done. Evidently, the original has already been truncated. What if it said "LIES from the pit of hell!!!!!" -- are we justified in taking it down to one exclamation point, or should we go further?

Thursday-morning-quarterback-wise, I'd push for adding "in an e-mail" to the attribution. Then I'd see if anybody wanted to talk a bit about whether the pervasive reliance on electronic text for attribution calls for some new style guidelines.

* Probably because it sounds like one of those Evan Meacham panels from the golden days of "Doonesbury."

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