Monday, July 1, 2013

Attribution: He said, she said

Attribution is one of the most fascinating aspects of journalism, as well as other forms of writing.

"I'm a good writer, but I can be better," he said. (This is the simplest form of attribution.)

"This year," he said, "has been tough for the Republican Party." (This breaks up the same-ole, same-ole.) 

"My car was stolen last night, and I immediately filed a police report," Jones, the school's principal, said Tuesday morning. (Some papers like to get the day into the story, and this is a way to do it. Me? I don't like it.) 

"Our team has improved the last five games," said Neidermeyer, the team's third-year coach. (This doesn't get the date in it, but it's a much smoother way to do attribution.) 

Every newspaper has its own style for attribution. I like to state something in present tense, then do the attribution in past tense. For instance:

Schmaltz says that it's been a good year for white wines. 

"We're happy with the volume and quality of wine we've produced this year," Schmaltz said. "Last year, we'd have been happy with half the wine we've produced this year." 

I worked with a guy who hated my form of attribution. He wanted me to stay in past tense (or present tense) for the whole story. That's one of the reasons we parted ways after seven and a half months. A small reason. He was a hard guy to work for. 

Some editors (and college professors) prefer us to use only "said." They don't want "recalled," "exclaimed," "offered" or anything else; just "said." 

Me? I don't mind an occasional "recalled." (No "he ejaculated," please.) If most of the story is about the present, "said" is fine. But if the interviewee is remembering something from the past or using the past as an example, "recalled" is perfect. 

I worked with one editor who wanted us to change attribution according to what the interviewee has said. I do that occasionally, but not often. For example: 

"Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country," Smarttenhoff said. 

"I enlisted in the Army as soon as Roosevelt declared war on Germany," said Smarttenhoff, who served for 20 years and received 14 medals. 

"The best time of my life came during a weekend furlough in Japan," Smarttenhoff has often said. 

Ask Smarttenhoff for his favorite marching songs, and he'll give a half-dozen examples, complete with percussion. "Music is my life," he said before breaking into "Le Marseillaise." 

What a guy, that Smarttenhoff. I wonder if Maxwell Smart's name was shortened from Smarttenhoff. 

The main point of contention, of course, is over "he said" vs. "he says."

"We're not singing well as a team," Lewis says. 

"We haven't sung well together in months," Martin added. 

Some writers don't mind mixing present and past in attribution, but I can't. I've used both forms, but I don't mix them. 

It's personal preference, but I'm doing the writing. 

He said.

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