Who Said So? Proper Attribution
Enhances Credibility

by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

See if you can determine the common characteristic of these three seemingly unrelated statements:

* More than 4 million Americans are believed to have Alzheimer's disease, and the number of people afflicted could increase to 14 million by 2050.

* Approximately 20 percent of companies doing business today are considered high credit risks.

* Mount Everest has been determined to be seven feet higher than previously believed.

What is their mutual trait? Attribution is missing in each of them.

Attribution is the act of identifying and acknowledging the originator or source of information, a theory or a statement.

  • WHO believes that 4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, and from what data was that statistic derived?

  • WHO considers companies high credit risks?

  • WHO recalculated the height of Mount Everest?

Additionally, attribution should explain the qualifications of persons to make such assessments. Attribution, which is a fundamental component of academic and journalistic writing, should be used prominently in business writing as well.

Lack of substantiation compromises credibility of claims. Consider, for example, this assertion: "Corporations spend several billion dollars annually to improve the writing skills of employees."

The statement gives no indication of who developed that claim, and how the estimate was determined. Without that information, the assertion is dubious.

It is improved somewhat in an amended version: "Corporations spend several billion dollars annually to improve the writing skills of employees, according to a business survey conducted by a blue-ribbon group evaluating the quality of writing instruction in the nation's schools and colleges."

However, that still does not identify the organization that performed the evaluation.

Proper attribution finally emerges in a more explicit version: "A group of education and business leaders has determined that corporations spend several billion dollars annually to improve the writing skills of employees. That's among the findings of a business survey conducted by the National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools and Colleges, which was established by the College Entrance Examination Board of New York City."

That version not only gives due credit, but also lends veracity to the claim. Attribution is appropriate for opinions and analysis of data that may be subject to dispute, but is not required to substantiate widely recognized facts. Thus, attribution is unnecessary for a statement such as "the meeting room is decorated in purple and orange," but is needed for an assertion that "the decor of the meeting room is hideous."

Use attribution for statements that are accusatory, opinionated or unsubstantiated. Clearly identify originators of statements or concepts by their full name, job title or profession, company or organization and city. When citing published works, include the name of the author, publisher, sponsoring organization, city and other relevant information.

Bear in mind, however, that attribution does not insulate a writer from responsibility for honesty and accuracy. Inclusion of a quotation to support a writer's contention is not justifiable if the quote is potentially libelous, fraudulent, illogical or otherwise flawed. Never alter or falsify direct quotes.

Attribution is most commonly indicated by the verbs "said" and "wrote," which are straightforward and impartial. Unintended connotations can be conveyed by other verbs and expressions, including:

  • ACCORDING TO (means "as stated or indicated by"; preferred in reference to written materials, but in some contexts can imply doubt about the integrity of the source)
  • ACKNOWLEDGED (disclosed, perhaps under pressure or with reluctance)
  • ADDED (can create the impression that a prior statement was so weak that it required reinforcement)
  • ADMITTED (implies reluctance to disclose information)
  • AFFIRMED (validated or confirmed)
  • AGREED (suggests the quoted person developed an opinion by concurring with a previous statement, which may not necessarily be true)
  • ALLEGED (charged or claimed without proof)
  • ANNOUNCED (proclaimed or declared formally)
  • ASSERTED (boldly declared
  • AVERRED (asserted, affirmed or declared positively)
  • AVOWED (stated with a strong sense of moral commitment)
  • CHARGED (made an assertion of guilt or blame)
  • CLAIMED (asserted, often with an accusatory connotation or suggestive of skepticism)
  • COMMENTED (annotated; more appropriate for a reaction than for an original statement
  • CONCEDED (means accepted as true or valid, but also can mean acknowledged grudgingly or hesitantly)
  • CONCLUDED (should be avoided if the source has more to say)
  • CONFESSED (pertains to admission of guilt, weakness, failure or deliberate deception)
  • CONTENDED (asserted argumentatively)
  • CONTINUED (can suggest that the speaker is verbose)
  • COUNTERED (depending upon context, can create the impression that the writer is contriving a conflict)
  • DECLARED (suggests an assertion delivered with formality)
  • DENIED (associated with refutation of a charge)
  • DETERMINED (ascertained definitively through investigation)
  • DISCLOSED (revealed a secret)
  • EXCLAIMED (uttered sharply, loudly, passionately or vehemently)
  • EXPLAINED (clarified information that was not immediately obvious)
  • NOTED (mentioned)
  • OBSERVED (remarked casually)
  • POINTED OUT (suggests that the person quoted is citing a universally accepted fact)
  • RELATED (told or narrated)
  • REVEALED (divulged information that had been or was intended to be concealed)
  • STATED (declared; sounds stilted)
  • SUGGESTED (intimated; conveyed an idea indirectly)
  • TOLD (informed; implies lecturing or scolding)

Use discretion when applying those terms to statements. Reserve direct quotation for powerful, striking statements. You may find paraphrasing preferable for more mundane statements that you can express more concisely than the speaker did.

You can quote us on that.

YES! EditPros can help you determine appropriate use of attribution in your documents.

EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs  and Jeff March
423 F Street, Suite 206, Davis, CA 95616-4153
(530) 759-2000;  fax (530) 759-2051 http://www.editpros.com

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