Is Using ‘Sic’ in Quotes No Longer Acceptable?
There was a time when the Latin word ‘sic’ was perfectly acceptable when quoting material that contained an error. It may no longer be so.
There are plenty of Latin words that have made their way into English. The Latin word sic is one of them.
The word is short for the Latin term sic erat scriptum, which meant “thus was it written.” It’s used when you are quoting someone or quoting a text that contains some type of error. When used after the error, it is supposed to indicate to your reader that the error is in the original quoted material, not because of an oversight on your part.
So let’s take this sentence:
“Yeah, I seen him taking the money,” the witness said.
I apologize to those fellow grammar nerds out there who cringe at such a sentence. I promise, however, that it’s necessary.
The quotation, which could easily be real, particularly in the South, contains what should be an obvious grammar error. The witness should have said, “I saw hm taking the money.”
But people don’t always speak as they should in the real world. So when dealing with direct quotes, you face this problem.
But there are options.
You can quote them directly as I did above. The problem here is that it makes it look like you made the error.
You can quote them directly and place the word sic, inside brackets, to indicate the error on their part:
“Yeah, I seen [sic] him taking the money,” the witness said.
The sic in brackets indicates you are aware the word was incorrect. It also shows you’re quoting the speaker as the speaker quote.
You could quietly correct the erroneous word and make no mention of the original error:
“Yeah, I saw him taking the money,” the witness said.
The issue with this is that you’re using quotation marks as if you are reproducing the quote exactly as it was made…but you aren’t. In a sense, it seems a bit dishonest.
The fourth option is to write it as a statement but not a quote:
The witness said he saw the man taking the money.
This option loses the verbatim quote but it also corrects the grammar error without making it look like you’re hiding something.
You can take a fifth option as well. You can correct the error by placing the correct word in brackets:
“Yeah, I [saw] him taking the money,” the witness said.
This at least acknowledges that you’ve made a change, so it’s semi-transparent. But it doesn’t show what the precise change is, so there’s some mystery about exactly what you’re changing.
The problem with ‘sic’
Some grammar authorities recommend against using sic in quotations.
The reason is simple: it can come off as condescending or mocking. Since it’s next to impossible to transmit your intended tone through written words, you have to hope you aren’t being misinterpreted by your readers.
The Associated Press Stylebook has long advised using (sic) in quotes in which you are showing that quoted material contains “a misspelling, incorrect grammar or peculiar usage.” But in the same paragraph, it states you should not use the word for “quoted material that may be open for challenge, such as a political assertion.” Instead, it says you should specify outside a quote in a separate sentence.
But The Columbia Journalism Review recently posted that the AP updated its position on sic, saying it now advises against it, adding that if the error must be explained, writers should either make the explanation in a separate sentence or simply paraphrase the quote to dodge the doubt altogether.
So again, it may be wise to think twice about using it unless it’s critically important to show the quoted material contains an irregularity that you are merely repeating and not committing yourself.
You should also ask yourself if it’s worth coming off as condescending, unless, of course, that’s your goal…which is an entirely different problem.