… and nothing but the truth

It is very helpful when setting out an analysis in a written piece to quote from documents that you have consulted in your background reading. This is useful because it gives some assurance to the reader that your work has been properly researched and it serves to give authority to your viewpoint. I have certainly found it helpful to follow this practice in my blogs.

However, there are pitfalls to beware of in using quotes for both the author and the reader.

The first is that the meaning or emphasis of the quote may change when it is removed from the context of the original work. This is something that you can only really check by going to the original work and the author should help you by giving a full reference to that work. In the Internet age, the most convenient way of referencing a source document is to provide a website address or a direct html link. In my blogs I have always given a link to source documents where I have been able to locate them on the web.

The second thing to be wary of is that the author will invariably only quote a part of the source document and therefore has selected the text that he is quoting from a larger body of work. In doing this he may place emphasis that the original author never intended, remove qualifications or additional information that the original author has provided and even, in extreme circumstances, change the whole meaning of what the original author really intended. Again, it is always advisable to check the source document.

Finally, the one that really should ring alarm bells is the use of an ellipsis (…) to indicate that words have been removed from within the quoted extract. Now this may be a completely innocent edit, required for grammatical reasons or to remove generally extraneous text. However the ellipsis can also be used malevolently to change the meaning; the most obvious, if crass, example would be the removal of the word “not”.

Now I must admit that I have had recourse to the ellipsis a number of times in my blogs and hope that I have used it honestly and appropriately; no doubt you will pick me up on any abuses that you find. However, my experience in blog writing has taught me always to check the original whenever I encounter an ellipsis in my reading.

In writing my blogs have sometimes found the selection of a quote from a source document has posed a dilemma. Take, for example, my blog Beware of Greeks bearing gifts (posted 21 Nov), in which I have quoted from paragraph 77 of the report by the Commons Transport Select Committee High Speed Rail (here). The extract that I used is:

“Some supporters of HS2 have argued that it would have substantial carbon reduction benefits. These claims do not stand up to scrutiny. At best, HS2 has the potential to make a small contribution to the Government’s carbon-reduction targets. Given the scale of the expenditure and the official assessment, HS2 should not be promoted as a carbon-reduction scheme.”

So there is no use of the ellipsis to be wary of and I am very confident that the extract genuinely reports a recommendation that the TSC intended to make. However, the quote is only the first part of the paragraph, which goes on to say:

“However, if the Government’s primary aim is to meet and reinforce demand for inter-urban travel, HS2 will produce less carbon than an expanded motorway network or a reliance on domestic aviation. It is important that the Government makes rapid progress with reducing carbon emissions from UK electricity generation.”

Now you could argue that these additional two sentences qualify the four that I quoted, hence my dilemma about whether to include them. To be quite honest with you, I am not really sure why the TSC included these two additional sentences. The first sentence, it appears to me, has already been taken into account in the extract that I quoted in the phrase “HS2 has the potential to make a small contribution to the Government’s carbon-reduction targets”. The second sentence has my full support, but I would argue that it is a different issue to the one of whether HS2 is, in itself, a carbon-reduction scheme.

So, in the end, I decided to keep things simple and leave out the final two sentences. I hope that in doing so I was not guilty of using the power of the editor to misrepresent what the TSC had intended. I hope that you agree that my integrity is intact.

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