| As a general rule, events or activities that a writer witnesses do not require attribution. Everything else does. But that's really more a guideline than it is a flat rule. If followed religiously, the rule would lead to ludicrous results because stories would be overflowing with attribution, which would make most stories cumbersome, at best. Generally, we start from that basic assumption found in the first sentence and, then, depart from it when one of the following conditions applies:
1. When the information is common knowledge.
2. When the information is on the record and readily available.
3. When the attribution is implied because of proximity to information already attributed in the story. In other words, it's clear to the reader that the information is coming from someone other than the writer.
4. When the information is background previously established in continuing stories.
5. When the writer is writing and reporting from a position of authority — the reporter is an expert or, through the reporting, the story reflects the depth of the reporting and that the information presented is coming from authoritative sources).
Quotations: In complete quotations, attribution is set off from the quote by a comma. (“I'm busy," she said. Or: She said, “I'm busy.”) Because complete quotes are sentences in their own right, the quoted material begins with a capital letter. Never use orphan quotes (when the reader or listener is not sure who's doing the talking). Always attach attribution to a quote.. We call attribution handled in this fashion an attribution tag.
Long quotes: Occasionally a long quote, particularly a formal one, such as from the text of a speech, will begin a paragraph. That construction calls for attribution in the previous graph, which must close with a colon.
President Abraham Lincoln said:
“Four score and seven years ago, our....”
Partial quotes: By definition, partial quotations and quote fragmentsare not complete sentences. Attribution in those rarely used devices is not set off by commas and the quoted material does not start with a capital letter.
The policeman said that the attack was “the most brutal” he'd seen in his 30 years on the police force.
Where to put the attribution tag: In direct quotations, the attribution tag can beplaced at the end, at the beginning or in the middle of the quote using these guidelines:
1. In a short quote, attribution usually is best placed at the end of the quote. The rationale is that the quote is more important than the attribution.
“That's the dumbest thing he ever did," she said.
2. In longer quotes, attribution should be placed at the end of the first sentence or at the first natural pause. The rationale is that the reader deserves early notice of who is being quoted. Never place an attribution tag in such a way that it interrupts the flow of a sentence.
“The car began sliding sideways, and then it hit the tree,” she said.
“The car began sliding sideways,” she said, “and then it hit the tree.”.
3. Place attribution ahead of the quote if the quote represents a change in speakers. Such placement constitutes a clear transitionfor the reader. This is important.
Mary Jones described the accident as horrifying.
“The car began sliding sideways, and then it hit the tree,” she said..
Commas: Note in the examples above, when attribution appears in the middle or end of a sentence or quote, it is set off by commas. When attribution appears at the beginning of a sentence, it is not set off by commas (unless, of course, the next words are the beginning of a full quote).
She said, “The car began sliding sideways, and then it hit the tree.”
She said the car slid sideways and then hit the tree.
Said: “Said” is the best word of attribution most of the time. That's because it has no connotations. All other words of attribution carry some additional, usually editorial, meaning. They are appropriate only if that additional meaning is proper and accurate. Even “stated” carries some connotational baggage: It implies formality, something read from a prepared script. Try not to use the words “according to” when attributing something to a person. Reserve it for reference a to written reports and stories that have been published in other newspapers or magazines. Use the word “charged” in attribution only in the context of a formal legal action. Avoid words such as “added,” “mentioned” (which implies it was done “in passing” or as an afterthought) and the like.
Tense: Use present tense words of attribution sparingly and thoughtfully. Even in feature stories, a present tense word of attribution implies that the speaker uses the quoted material so frequently that it almost amounts to a trademark. However, especially in feature stories and magazine articles, the word “says” is being used increasingly to reflect what a person said at the time the story or interview took place, not when the story was written or published. Nevertheless, be careful. Make sure that says does not give a wrong impression. In most straight news stories, “said” is still the preferred word of attribution. And do not use “says” simply to avoid the rule of sequence of tenses when it must be applied.
Some final thoughts on the word “said”: Readers like — dare I say love? — the word because they don't see it. It's simple and direct, and can't be misinterpreted. So use it often or, perhaps, all the time. If you find a need to use other words, like exclaimed, gushed, etc., it likely means the writer hasn't set up the quote in a way that the reader knows what's coming. It's often a sign of bad writing (and bad writers) when such words apprear in copy.
Attribution, before or after? Almost always place the word of attribution after the proper name of the speaker: “Jones said.” Not “said Jones.” Always place it after a pronoun reference to the speaker. “She said,” not “said she.” Place the attribution before the speaker's name only when the name is followed by a long identification, an appositive or a non-restrictive clause.
The train had sounded its whistleand had flares burning on the back car, said H.D. Muldoon, a brakeman on the train who witnessed the crash.
The train had sounded its whistleand had flares burning on the back car, H.D. Muldoon, a brakeman on the train, said.
In some cases, as in the example above, a person'sposition or title might have more meaning to the reader — and to the contextof the sentence — than the person's name. For example, in the example above, it might make more sense to make it read: The train had sounded its whistle and had flares burning on the back car, a brakeman on the train, H.D. Muldoon, said. Why? Because his title, his job with the railroad, tells the reader he is someone who should know what he's talking about. It makes him an expert, and that's more important, in this case, than his name.
Transitional devices: Avoid, as attribution, transitional devices that obliquely sneak the reporte rinto the story. “When asked...” and similar phrases are really nothing more than the print medium equivalent of the camera shot of the TV reporter nodding as the person being interviewed talks. In other words, it's ego.
One person, one quote,please: Don't use more than one attribution for the same quote, no matter how long the quote.