Monday, July 18, 2011

Quoting out of context

What does “quoting out of context” mean? It means either: (1) quoting with no context, or (2) quoting with the wrong context. Often, the lack of context or the presence of the wrong context changes the apparent meaning of the quotation.

Example of the first type of quoting out of context

A famous example of the first type (quoting with no context) is the old saying:

“Money is the root of all evil.”

Here is the original context of the quotation:

“But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (Holy Bible, King James Version, 1 Timothy, Chapter 6, Verses 9-10.)

When we see the original context, we immediately recognize that the writer was not condemning money per se, but the love (and therefore the misuse) of money.

Example of the second type of quoting out of context

Here is an example of the second type (quoting with the wrong context):

“Although selling at the lower end of what some analysts believed the company would go for, the Milan-based maker of Miu Miu handbags still raised $2.1 billion for a mere 16.5 percent of the company to grow its brand. Sex and the City may be relegated to running sanitized episodes in syndication, but company president and head designer Miuccia Prada figures there’s a boom somewhere and there are plenty of women needing expensive bags. ‘It’s where the future is,’ she told the Wall Street Journal.” (Boldface added.)

It sounds as if Ms. Prada were saying that the future is women buying expensive bags. But here’s the context of the quotation, from the original article (requires subscription) in The Wall Street Journal:

“Ms. Prada believes an IPO [initial public offering] in Hong Kong will help the family-owned company draw upon the dynamism of Asia and expose some members of her management team to a different culture.

“ ‘The whole idea of doing this here, for me, was exciting because it is where things are happening. It’s where the future is,’ she said.” (Boldface added.)

It’s clear that she was talking about the Asian market as the future.

The Takeaway: Whenever you quote something, consider carefully whether the quotation needs context to be intelligible to the reader. And if you decide to include context, be careful to select the right context.

See disclaimer.

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