When to “use” partial “quotes” to make them “effective”

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Not “exactly” a “powerful” use of a “partial quote.”

The point of a partial quote is to use quality paraphrase to set up a word, word pairing or short phrase to make a significant impact on the story you plan to tell. For some reason, a number of the stories I’ve been reading aren’t written with that mission in mind.

Here are a few examples where the authors used partial quotes in relatively ineffective ways:

People close to President Trump said the indictment caught him and his advisers “off guard.” 

On the day of the shooting, she informed her boss that the student was in a “violent mood,” the complaint alleges.

Lilly Lima noted that coffeehouse does “have lattes,” but that she preferred other forms of coffee that were missing.

In each case, if you took the quote marks away, you would not lose any impact because the words aren’t particularly valuable or special as they relate to the story. In addition, you lessen the impact of any future partial quotes because you’re over using them.

Here are three ways in which writers can use partial quotes effectively, based on a few important premises:

(EDITOR’S NOTE: These words or phrases were actually used in the media and some of them are quite harsh. Not all of them are used directly from the same source, or in the exact sentence the original writer built, but they are real. I wanted to flag folks who tend to worry about “unnecessary cursing” and other vulgarities. Still, that’s one of the key reasons we use partial quotes: Someone says something we surely don’t want readers think came from us.)

With that in mind, here we go…

EXAMPLE 1: A source uses a word or phrase that is vulgar or otherwise offensive and we want to make clear what that source said without letting the reader think we, as the writer, came up with it:

An NCAA investigator referred to UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian as a “rug merchant,” a term Tarkanian’s wife said was a slur against her husband’s Armenian heritage.

An employee at a Domino’s Pizza in Michigan was fired after he cursed out a customer and called her a “fucking retard.”

Mardela Springs Mayor Norman Christopher faced a hostile group of citizens this week after referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as “Buckwheat’s birthday.”

The last thing you would want as a writer is to have anyone thinking you said that stuff. The quote marks make it clear you are merely conveying the content so that the readers can judge for themselves how upset they should be. (My answer would be pretty damned upset…)

EXAMPLE 2: Someone uses a phrase that is eloquent, unique or has some kind of panache in describing someone or something. It could be clever or insulting or merely just odd, but you want to use the words and they’re clearly not yours:

During his SNL monologue, comedian Dave Chappelle referred to Senate candidate Hershel Walker as “demonstratively stupid.”

The plan to hire retired sex workers as crossing guards was “a case of absolute dipshittery,” the mayor said in an email to the city council members who proposed the bill.

Truman shot back that Eisenhower, who’d later win the election, knows less about politics “than a pig knows about Sunday.”

Quotes themselves are intended to allow a source to use language in a way that provides vibe and feel to a piece, so this is a pretty good way of doing it, if a complete sentence or two aren’t going to work.

EXAMPLE 3: Someone says something that comes back to bite them in the keester.

Despite saying Saturday that he would remain the university’s president for “the foreseeable future,” Carleton James announced Monday he had taken a job with an online educational organization and would be gone by semester’s end.

Gov. John Smith said at Tuesday’s Education Roundtable that improving the state’s schools was his “No. 1 focus,” despite stating less than 24 hours earlier that his “No. 1 focus” this year would be crime reduction.

A lot of times, people say things and it becomes pretty clear that there is no way they mean what they say. To that end, using their own words to impeach their character can do a world of good for your readers.

Hope this “helps” you and your students make “better use” of partial quotes.

(OK, I’ll “stop” now…)

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

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