In your own words, please…

Today I shall do as I am paid and write words for other people to claim that they said. Even though we allegedly take great care, marking words off carefully with speech marks to denote what, exactly, someone actually said, and what it is merely reported they did. It’s a nice distinction and one to get right to avoid the accusation of ‘misquoting’ someone, or worse, plagiarism.

Not that the ancients shared our qualms, recording what might or ought to have been, as they saw fit. Did Tacitus really get down the words of Calgacus, without dictaphone or amanuensis, ahead of a battle at which he was not present? Thucydides, writing earlier, makes plain his method: “while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were acually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.” Or something like that, translations differ.

At some point the little double curls cut in to say, “yes really, that is what was said,” and their use became convention, a fact no doubt duly debated in dusty papers in the passive tense. Papers that themselves do not speak, quoting only the carefully refined and polished words of others, preserved as if exact for posterity.

So we are back – almost – to where we started, with words written for others recitation, handed out with a ‘check against delivery’ warning that the speaker may depart from his script. What I write is humbler, my position more akin to Rita Skeeter’s ‘quick-quotes’ pen, turning out nifty little quotes that can be sliced into a journalist’s story.

Unlike Rita and her pen, the speakers ask me to write the words they will say, and I take great care that they approve and can change what I am to claim they said. Still, like Thucydides, I think that readers should also know how the process works.

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