Do you want to use quotes? Make sure they’re accurate

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This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss what to do if you want to use quotes in your writing…

Many writers like to use quotes in their writing — particularly a style known as an “epigraph.”

An epigraph is a quotation — often from a famous person — set at the beginning of a book or chapter, used to suggest its theme. For example, here is the epigraph from the famous novel many of us studied in high school, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” – Charles Lamb

But there’s an issue that might not have occurred to you: Just because a quote is widely attributed to a particular person, doesn’t mean the person actually said it.

Take for example, a quote widely attributed to Albert Einstein:

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

That quote meshes with our perception of Einstein as a really smart man who had little tolerance for schools or for societal rules. (We know he had delayed speech, which may have given him the self-perception of being an “outsider” and some people believe he may have had dyslexia, although there is no firm proof of this.)

But the trouble is, Einstein didn’t actually make this very Einstein-like comment. A thorough analysis by the Quote Investigator shows that author Matthew Kelly, had incorrectly attributed it to Einstein is a 2004 self-help book titled, The Rhythm of Life: Living Every Day with Passion and Purpose. So who said it? Read the Quote Investigator piece to find out.

The message? If you want to use a quote, always do your best to track that quote back to the original source. Paste it into Google with quotation marks around it. Carefully study the resources that come up. Many of them will be the well-known sites for quotes. Select one that will take you back to an original source.

And if one of the sites is the Quote Investigator, thank your lucky stars. This website records the investigatory work of Garson O’Toole who diligently seeks the truth about quotations. It has been cited by journalists and writers at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Economist.

Next week, I’ll talk about epigraphs and the need for permissions…

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