How to quote e-mail, tweets, and such

BREAKING: Palm Beach Sheriffs Office tells @SusanCandiotti that the bomb squad is investigating a suspicious pkg near #Rush #Limbaugh home

How would you quote that tweet, sent last week? As it was tweeted? Or would you write “The Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office tells Susan Candiotti that the bomb squad is investigating a suspicious package near Rush Limbaugh’s home”? Or something else? (By the way, here’s Limbaugh’s report on the bomb squad’s visit.)

When you talk to a source in person, or on the phone, it is up to you to capture the words, spelling, and punctuation. If you quote from a book or a letter, you probably repeat exactly what was written.

But now there’s e-mail, and Facebook, and Twitter, and texting, among other things. And how you treat those words in a print or narrative context can be a matter not just of style, but of impact.

Most style guides do not yet have comprehensive entries on how to deal with interviews or quotations obtained over e-mail, text, or social media. Those are all more casual means than other written communications, and are regularly replete with misspellings, odd capitalization, and—in the case of tweets and texts—abbreviations and symbols because of character limits.

So, assuming you need to quote it and not just paraphrase it, do you print a tweet, or an e-mail, as it was sent or posted, complete with abbreviations, misspellings, hashtags (also known as octothorpes), and the like? Or do you edit it? And at what point does the editing go too far?

The “Ask the Editor” section of the online Associated Press Stylebook offers some guidance. A questioner noted that an AP wire story quoting a tweet changed “#KimJongIl” to “Kim Jong Il.” David Minthorn, the stylebook editor who oversees the forum, replied: “The content of the Tweet wasn’t altered by citing it without hashtags, so it’s within AP guidance on preserving quotes.”

(Besides, the AP wire cannot transmit symbols like “#” and “@” anyway, so it’s hard for that service to exactly replicate a tweet in any event. )

Changing a quotation is generally frowned upon, and some places object to cleaning up grammar in a quote as well, though it is frequently done. But readers react very differently to written words than spoken ones. (If you have any doubt, just try to read a transcript of a wiretapped conversation.) And while tweets or e-mails are not spoken aloud, they are closer to spoken than written speech.

So it is perhaps best to treat them as a hybrid, or as a kind of dialect.

About dialect, the AP Stylebook says: “Quoting dialect, unless used carefully, implies substandard or illiterate usage.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says: “Even writers with the keenest ears and most thorough notes must satisfy themselves that readers will understand why a class or group is being tarred selectively with quirks.”

That’s a good guideline to follow with written e-mail and social media communications as well. Make the tone of the communication match the tone of the content, and the context. In narrative writing, it should be acceptable to quote an e-mail but to correct its spelling and capitalization (but not grammar or syntax). For a tweet and text, it should be acceptable to spell out abbreviations, to use a source’s full name instead of a “handle,” and to eliminate hashtags within quoted matter, especially since those symbols are used mostly for searching and identification purposes, not as part of the content anyway.

Not everyone knows what “TIA” or “ROFL” means, so translate for your readers. (Use your judgment on how to handle “WTF.”). As for emoticons, that’s better left unsaid. ;-}

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,