Annals of ISOC

… and writing and editing copy. Ben Zimmer points me to “Editor Mark”‘s Google+ page, with an entry that begins:

My Editor Mark page on Facebook saw some use today when Janice Harayda asked me a kind of “you make the call” copy editing question. Here is what she posted:

“The British Home Secretary Theresa May said that ‘it is natural to ask whom polices the police’ [link]. If you had been editing her comments, would you have let that stand?

There’s the linguistic issue — May’s quote is an instance of ISOC (In-situ Subject of an Object Clause) case marking for WHO, with a non-standard (but fairly common) subject whom — and then there’s the question of what a writer or editor should have done with the sentence.

On ISOC, see

AZ on LLog, 1/23/07: Whom shall I say [ ___ is calling ]? (link)

AZ on LLog, 6/18/07: ISOC, ESOC (link)

AZBlog 4/25/11: The siren song of whom (link)

“Editor Mark” goes on to say:

I love the question because I know there are strong opinions about how we handle direct quotes at a newspaper when it comes to grammatical issues, mistaken word choices, and dialectic [dialectal (speaking of word choices)] pronunciations.

I’ve never felt that a quote is sacrosanct when it comes to minor grammatical fixes. I think “gonna” is spelled “going to.” But fixing grammatical errors can make it appear that we’re protecting the speaker, in this case an important public figure.

In the end, I found a way to avoid the question. I’d lose the quotation marks for most of it:

May said it is natural to ask who “polices the police.”

I don’t think the reader loses much by not having the full quote. I’d prefer it as a quote, but this time it just doesn’t work.

I did a Google News search and only got a few hits on the quote, and I found only one that truncated it (I admit I didn’t dig too deeply). The Independent in England truncated it as “who polices the police.”

CBS, Arkansas Online and the Atlanta Journal Constitution went with “whom.” Most others, including the San Francisco Chronicle, went with “who.”

What did you, should you have, or would you have done? You make the call.

Tanja Gardner notes that

I usually have the luxury of going back to my quotee and double-checking that they’re happy with what I’ve said. I can imagine that in journalism, that’s a nicety that writers/editors simply don’t get.

and Mark replies:

Yes, though it’s a nicety many sources would love — the ability to restate what they said in clearer terms. Journalism attempts to record what happened, not in the way a source would like things to have happened. That said, spoken English and written English are different, and going from one to the other can be jarring if we attempt to be too precise. You hear, but don’t see President Obama’s “ers” when he is quoted. You heard but didn’t see President Bush’s many fits and starts as he spoke.

It’s an issue that Mark Liberman has commented on a number of times on Language Log.


2 Responses to “Annals of ISOC”

  1. Tom V Says:

    This reminds me of an old (Saturday Evening Post??) cartoon.
    A woman is writing a check in a shop and asks, “Who shall I make it toom?”

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