Looking at Language: Get the Quote Right!

Looking at Language: Get the Quote Right!

Don't just pin it on Twain, Shaw or Churchill.

By Fred R. Shapiro


One of the fundamental tools of the public speaker is the quotation. When we quote a famous writer, we borrow the eloquence, insight and wit of a brilliant wordsmith and enhance the credibility of our own points by associating them with the luster of the writer’s name. If we get the quotation right, that is, credit it to the correct author, those people in our audience who already know the quote nod their heads in appreciation.

Ernest Hemingway (here I’m using the technique of literary quotation myself) wrote: 

        The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
        A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.


Similarly, if we use a quotation without proper attribution to the author who originated it, our speech has a hollowness that some listeners will sense consciously or unconsciously. But giving the right source for your quotes will fill your speech with additional strength and resonance.

How do you find the right source of a quotation? Many will say the Internet is the place to turn, but this is far from the truth. The Internet is teeming with millions of quotations, but few are attributed correctly, or even attributed at all. Authoritative quotation books are the only sure guide to tracing quotations to their creators. The three best quotation books are: the recently published Yale Book of Quotations, the older Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

If you rely on the Internet or the popular, word-of-mouth knowledge you vaguely remember, then you will end up attributing almost all quotations to a few people: Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, George Bernard Shaw, Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein. These individuals are “quote magnets” – any quotation with a questionable origin gets attached to their names. Attributing a saying to Mark Twain without confirming it makes a “hollow place” in your speech, because what you are really doing is confessing that you have no idea where this came from and you are tacking on “Mark Twain” for lack of a real source that would enhance your credibility.

An authoritative quotation book supplies the real sources and thus the credibility enhancement for your speech. Here are some concrete examples of how the Yale Book of Quotations corrects the popular “pin it on Twain” kind of attribution: 

        It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool,
        than to talk and remove all doubts. 
– Benedict J. Goltra

This is commonly credited to Abraham Lincoln, but it does not appear in Lincoln’s writings, speeches or contemporary accounts. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women,
        the respect of intelligent men, and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has
        left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never
        lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them
        the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory is a benediction.
– Bessie A. Stanley

This is often said to be by Ralph Waldo Emerson and titled “Success.” In fact, it was written in 1905 by Stanley and was the first-prize winner in a contest sponsored by the magazine Modern Women. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain
        their neutrality.
– John F. Kennedy, Speech, Tulsa, Okla., Sept. 16, 1959

Kennedy attributed these words to Dante, but no passage in Dante matches them, so the quotation belongs to Kennedy rather than the poet. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately. – Richard Penn

This remark is usually ascribed to Benjamin Franklin upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but Franklin biographer Carl Van Doren regards it as not an authentic Franklinism. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        An eye for an eye ends in making everybody blind. – Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” is frequently attributed to M. K. Gandhi, but no example of its use by the Indian leader has ever been discovered. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. – S. G. Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire

Many reference works treat this as a quotation by Voltaire, but that is erroneous; it was a paraphrase by Tallentyre of Voltaire’s attitude, and does not appear anywhere in Voltaire’s writings. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        I can’t tell a lie, Pa, you know I can’t tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet. – Parson Weems, The Life of George Washington

This remark is apocryphal, invented by Weems and put into Washington’s mouth in the former’s biography. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        War is hell. – Napoleon

The attribution to Napoleon predates William Tecumseh Sherman’s usage of these words by more than twenty years; even then, Sherman did not use this exact wording. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!
        
– William Hutchinson Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.

Although widely attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, these lines appear to be at best a paraphrase of Goethe’s Faust. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        1. You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. 
        2. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. 
        3. You cannot help small men up by tearing down big men. 
        4. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. 
        5. You cannot lift the wage earner up by pulling the wage payer down. 
        6. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income. 
        7. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. 
        8. You cannot establish sound social security on borrowed money. 
        9. You cannot build character and courage by taking away a man’s initiative and independence. 
        10. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves. 
        – William J. H. Boetcker, The Industrial Decalogue

These “ten cannots” are frequently, but falsely, attributed to Abraham Lincoln. 

                                    ∞∞∞

        The young people no longer obey the old. The laws that ruled their fathers are trampled underfoot. They seek only
        their own pleasure and have no respect for religion. They dress indecently and their talk is full of impudence.
        
– Guy Endore, The Werewolf of Paris

This is “the Socrates quote,” which in various wordings attributes to Socrates a denunciation of the corrupt youth of his day. No one has found an authentic classical source for this, and it is undoubtedly a modern invention by Endore. 

                                    ∞∞∞

Comic television newsman Stephen Colbert has coined the word “truthiness” to describe the contemporary tendency to base our statements on gut instincts rather than actual evidence or facts. Quoting Mark Twain without verifying the reference in an authoritative quotation dictionary is “truthiness,” not truth. Your listeners may swallow the spurious attribution, or they may sense your lack of credibility, resulting in your losing their trust. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “You can fool all of the people some of the time; you can fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” Or was that Denis Diderot? Check out page 204 of the Yale Book of Quotations to find out for sure. 


Fred R. Shapiro is a librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School and editor of the recently published Yale Book of Quotations.

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