September 24, 2003

The case of the tags that didn't invert

Chris Potts has observed that The New Yorker sometimes prints sentences with curiously convoluted quotative tags, such as
"... ," Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded by the Reverend Pat Robertson, says.
Chris postulates that these teutonically turgid tags are the work of copy editors who are implementing a policy against "quotative inversion," or perhaps of authors who are avoiding confrontation with such a policy. His explanation assumes that the cited sentences would be clearer and more readable if the verb said were not separated from its subject by a massive pile of appositives:
"... ," says Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded by the Reverend Pat Robertson.
In a comment, Jeff Ward offers an alternative explanation: "Attribution is taught that way in journalism classes."

I'm skeptical of Ward's theory, because in other journalistic publications, it's easy to find examples of quotative inversion. I asked google to search for instances of "said" on web sites like and, and quickly found plenty of quotative tags with inversion. In some cases, the inversion helps the tag to bear the weight of accumulated appositives, as in this transcendent example from a piece in The Atlantic by the late Michael Kelly:

"Every fair-minded person knows that when Iraqi officials say something, they are trustworthy," said Saddam Hussein, President for Life and Conscience of the Culture of Iraq, not to mention of the Internal Security Forces of Iraq, recognizing his responsibility as an artist (he is the author of two romantic novels, Zabibah and the King and The Fortified Castle, both acclaimed by leading Iraqi critics) to tell the truth, in his own way.
As far as I can see in a brief survey, journalists routinely use quotative inversion in this way, to help them load speakers up with appositives. Here's a less flamboyant example, from The New York Times:
After nearly beating the young man to death, said the Laramie Police Commander, David O'Malley, the assailants stole his wallet and shoes and left him tied to the fence.
And there are also plenty of plain simple down-to-earth quotative inversions, with no appositional fuss or feathers:
"I don't know," said the guard.
I found no examples of quotative inversion at all on The New Yorker's web site (in a cursory check). Unfortunately, there is not enough text there to enable a statistically convincing test of Chris' hypothesis.- Implicit negative evidence requires a sufficiently large number of cases where the dog might have barked but chose not to; and google finds only 17 instances of the string "said" (and 18 instances of "says") on, mostly not in quotative tags at all. However, Chris' examples are so spectacularly awkward that some explanation is needed, and (pace Jeff Ward) journalism school doesn't seem to be the culprit.

[Update (10/1/2003): this morning I took an old copy of The Economist (May 17-23rd 2003) with me into bathroom, and emerged, refreshed, with a harvest of 17 instances of quotative inversion, from

"Let's get on with it," urged Colin Powell, America's secretary of state, ...
on p. 25 to
Indeed, says Mr. Kemer, ...
on p. 68. Since I've read three recent issues of The New Yorker without finding even one inverted quotative tag, I'm prepared to assert that a more serious survey would provide solid quantitative as well as qualitative evidence for the Potts Conjecture. This might have some conceptual value as a practical instance of "implicit negative evidence" (that is, evidence from what does happen about what isn't allowed to happen). On the other hand, we could just ask the folks at The New Yorker...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 24, 2003 06:00 PM