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Sometimes I need to adjust a quote for whatever reason. I don't want to steal somebody else's words, so I want to quote, but if it's no longer their exact words, wrapping it in "" doesn't feel right to me.

For example, I just altered

if I couldn’t do it within 10 minutes, I couldn’t do it at all

To squeeze it into a tweet. I wound up changing it slightly to

If I couldn’t do it in 10 min, I couldn’t do it at all

I wrapped it in ~~ to try to show that it's not a direct quote, but wonder; is there a way to 'almost' quote somebody?

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  • 3
    Search Google for "indirect quotation"
    – nohat
    Jun 4, 2012 at 15:08
  • The question isn't clear. You are using someone's direct words but changing them for space constrictions. What do you mean by saying you "don't want to steal someone else's words" when you do want to quote what they said?
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 4, 2012 at 15:18
  • @AndrewLeach - I mean that I don't want to imply these are my words or thoughts. Especially if it's something insightful, the credit is not mine. KWIM? Jun 4, 2012 at 15:23
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    Do you state anywhere who actually wrote the words? (Can't tell from your question.)
    – JLG
    Jun 4, 2012 at 15:32
  • @JLG - I included a link to the article I lifted it from. ... so, no, but I think that qualifies. :-) Jun 4, 2012 at 17:38

6 Answers 6

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There is no generally-recognised punctuation to mean "this is a close but not exact quote". The standard way of indicating this is...

To paraphrase Churchill, never have so many paid so little for so much.

...which clearly won't help OP, since it would take more characters to indicate what he's doing than would be saved.

There is a convention that you can replace part of a quote by some semantically-equivalent text in [square brackets] - for various reasons, including space-saving. So in this case OP could write...

"If I couldn’t do it [quickly], I couldn’t do it at all".

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  • Newspapers and news sites do this all the time, certainly not always for space considerations; I agree that it's well established. That being said, there are many times when news sites use it in an incredibly irritating and frustrating way: I can tell that they changed something, but it's killing me trying to figure out exactly what.
    – MT_Head
    Jun 4, 2012 at 16:10
  • @MT_Head: Oftentimes the "inexact quote" is actually longer than the original. The original often includes pronouns with obvious referents in context; without that context, the full noun form may be necessary. Even when the quoted text is shorter, this is more likely to be for the sake of clarity rather than to save column inches, I feel. Jun 4, 2012 at 16:17
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    @MT_Head: I'm sure you meant "Muaha[haha]haha!", which by our established convention here could represent an arbitrarily long "hahahaha..." (i.e. - the villainous chortling could still be going on). If you're gonna haunt, you gotta keep it up a long time or it doesn't count! Jun 4, 2012 at 20:02
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    Ooo[ooo]ooh! Good one!
    – MT_Head
    Jun 4, 2012 at 21:35
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    @pedrorolo: Not necessarily. Using "paired" question marks as delimiters is an orthographic feature of some languages, but not English. Different readers might therefore make different assumptions as to what that particular "non-standard convention" meant (me, I'd probably just assume it meant no more than that the writer was Spanish! :) Mar 20, 2017 at 14:04
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There are two common methods for handling alterations to a quote, depending on the nature of the alteration.

For omissions, the most common practice is to insert an ellipsis . . . in place of the omitted words or phrase. For alterations, such as to preserve grammatical flow in the context of a paragraph, to work around an omission, or to add explanatory or clarifying text, placing the new or changed language [in square brackets] is the standard.

That said, in the context of a tweet, if you're talking about committing a grammatical sin on somebody's behalf to fit within a 140 character limit, as in your example, I'm inclined to simply say: relax. It's not that big a deal, and changing 'within' to 'in' is hardly misquoting someone to the degree that it requires any consultation of a style guide.

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    " relax. It's not that big a deal" - Agreed. But this keeps coming up, and I've often wondered about it. Thanks. +1 Jun 4, 2012 at 17:39
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Ditto LessPop_MoreFizz.

In your example, you could write "If I couldn’t do it [in] 10 min, I couldn’t do it at all."

It's common to add very brief elaborations in brackets, like "Before being elected president, he [Theodore Roosevelt] served as", etc.

You can always reword broadly just by removing the quotes. Instead of writing

Bob said, "If I couldn’t do it within 10 min, I couldn’t do it at all."

You could write

Bob said that if he couldn't do it in 10 min he couldn't do it at all.

Then you're giving proper credit without indicating that it's an exact quote.

Frankly, the example you give is not the best. You're saving 4 characters. Any punctuation or explanation you give will likely take at least a couple of characters, so the savings ends up being minimal. I suppose in a tweet the size limit is so tight that you're in a bind. Conventional English rules for handling quotations and variations thereof really just weren't invented to work within that limitation. Maybe we'll have to invent something.

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  • Regarding brief elaborations, I'd say that (parentheses) are more common, brackets indicating paraphrasis. It might be a local thing (Australia), but the other answers to the question suggest it holds globally.
    – wyatt
    Jun 4, 2012 at 23:56
  • @wyatt But you wouldn't put a parenthetical expression within a quote. That would tell any reader that it was part of the quote. If that's an accepted thing in Australia or some "culture" within Australia, okay, but definitely not accepted in the US.
    – Jay
    Mar 10, 2021 at 15:43
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Don't know if there's a convention—because before Twitter, the 3-point ellipsis (. . .) + [brackets] served everyone's needs very well. So in my opinion, John McIntyre's instinctual solution of 2 "similarity" signs (~~) seems like a good one, although a single "sim" sign (~) saves space, so in Twittereze might be just as good. As I think on it, though, the "approximation" sign (≈) might be better.

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  • Thanks for your first answer. The purpose of the site is English Language and Usage. The use of texting shortcuts like "b/c", "be4" (etc.) make it hard for those who are already struggling with the language to understand your answer. This answer is also written like a comment on the answer from someone else answer rather than an answer in itself. Perhaps you could edit this to clean it up and work to better support your opinion of the use of approximation sign. Oct 16, 2018 at 11:23
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    @JohnMacIntyre IIRC a person can always edit and potentially delete their own posts across all stackexchange sites. Please remember that a comments purpose is to help the person posting it to improve it. My comments are aimed at doing just that. I would not be able to edit this post to help them show support of the use of approximation sign since I don't know where the answer poster is going with their position. Oct 19, 2018 at 15:15
  • How many people would understand this practice? Oct 4, 2021 at 11:26
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Respect, but by my lights the 'single quote solution' noted above is no solution, because single quotes are properly used not to alter, shorten, paraphrase or otherwise "adjust" an exact quote, but to directly and exactly quote a speaker inside a quote:
"Night had already fallen when Geoff said,
'Jane, it's time to go.'
Jane nodded, and they left."

I much prefer the symbols « and » (i.e., "much less than" and "much greater than," to open and close an altered or adjusted quote: a new punctuation usage that is especially useful in Twitter-like environments where economy of expression is necessary.

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  • Hello, Staffwriter. Chevrons/double chevrons are (reasonably often) used as variants on single or double inverted commas. How can people be expected to know that this is a different intended usage? Oct 4, 2021 at 11:28
  • Context, I should think. Aug 1, 2022 at 14:33
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I'm surprised at all the hoop-de-doo over a simple and clear question: wanting to paraphrase a quote, however, the in example, "if I couldn’t do it within 10 minutes, I couldn’t do it at all", to simply shorten "minutes" to "min", which is the product of a technological limitation which exceeds the bounds and rules of humanely generated grammar to which you can artificially attempt to adapt to computerese, in which case, any grammatical application that approximates your exact meaning is probably okay; however, the above example is not a good one. To use someone's quote, but express it in a shortened way or by using your own words or interpretation of the quoter's intended meaning, I use a single quotation mark [an apostrophe on your keyboard] to do this. For example, using a Bob Marley quote,"The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively". You can paraphrase by writing: I agree with Bob Marley who sings about,'greatness shouldn't be measured by one's wealth, but by how one affects those around him'. Hope this post helps.

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  • There is no universal rule that double quotes and single quotes mean something different. Use of one or the other is a matter of style, not meaning.
    – nnnnnn
    Oct 4, 2021 at 0:09

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