In doing research for writing books you notice disturbing things.
Sometimes you discover a saying attributed to two different people, and the right attribution is actually less popular than the wrong one (In my case I misattributed the famous quote mistakenly believed to be Goethe – “Boldness has genius, power and magic…”). Other times people snip a quote in such a way that it is divorced from the context in which the writer intended.
One example is this famous saying from Emerson:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
The quote is from Self-Reliance, an essay about learning about yourself. Which is a good thing to do.
The problem is it’s easy to lob off those first two words and have a different quote.
Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Same sentence, different meaning. A meaning that Emerson never intended and clearly disagreed with. But by using this well worn phrase in a different way, some kind of violation of intention has taken place. It’s not what the author meant. The writer using the quote is co-opting the work of the other guy to suit his own purposes.
This problem can be minimized, but it’s hard to avoid entirely. There are too many misquotings in too many good or popular books, to either verify quotes before using them, or get secondary references for all sources. The web does help catch these things, but preventing them is another matter. How much responsibility do writers have to verify quotes?
The problems get worse with fiction.
There is a Stephen King quote bouncing around the web that goes like this:
God is cruel, sometimes he makes you live.
As best I can tell, the quote comes from a novel he wrote called Desperation. However another version of the quote is listed this way:
Do you know how cruel your God can be, David. How fantastically cruel? …Sometimes he makes us live.
Which version would you use? Probably the one that’s shorter. This sort of thing happens all the time, such as in the story of the quote known as Murphy’s law. Sometimes the quote gets better over time, even as it distances itself from what the attributed author actually wrote or said.
The surprise is that both versions can be found at the same source, wikiquote. Here’s the first and here’s the second. At least wikiquote attributes quotes to their sources, which many quote books and websites do not.
In any case the quote is from a work of fiction. King, the author, may have written this sentence for purposes that serve the book. He may not actually believe this sentence. Or maybe he does. Only he knows. You can find similar quoting issues where an author gets attributed for something one of his character says, which is really quite a different thing than saying it themselves.
For the writers out there, it’s worth taking a moment to find out where a quote comes before you use it. Even just to know what book it’s from, and if it’s fiction or non-fiction. If you’re using a quote as the main anchor to support your major point, dig up the reference and read the paragraph before and after the quote – it will make a huge difference in respecting what the writerÂ intended. And hopefully writers in the future will do the same with your work.
Sadly few quote compendiums bother to provide any references at all.