The use and misuse of quoting people

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 writer  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.

9 Responses to “The use and misuse of quoting people”

  1. Stephen King

    Both quotes are right; they’re said by different people at different times. And yes, I believe that. I think you can usually tell what the writer believes and what a character believes. Not always, but mostly.

  2. Bulldozer00

    As usual, nice and engaging piece Scott. However, what’s the big deal? If I’m writing on a topic and I need a short, concise quote that sums it up, I can try to come up with something myself, or “borrow” someone else’s whole quote, or poach a small fragment of it. If I borrow a frag of it to force fit it into my context, then I won’t publish the attribution so that the original author won’t be misunderstood. Since I’m trying to reinforce *my* point, is it really criminal to use a frag of the original quote out of context? Not that anyone does, but I don’t care how anyone uses or mangles what I say to promote their own personal view – as long as they don’t promote it as my view. As L. Lessig says, “ideas are free”.

  3. Scott

    Bulldozer: It’s a fair point. I’m not sure there is a big deal here.

    To be specific, it’s the attributing a point to someone who likely wouldn’t agree with it that bothers me. It seems the decent thing is to spend a little energy to check what the dude meant before using his name to support my own point.

  4. Stephen James

    Thanks for pointing out the truthiness of many quotes.

    I disagree with the idea that you can quote a character in a book and attribute it directly to the author. That would be like quoting Satan during the temptation of Jesus and either attributing it to Matthew or God.

    Twitter and texting will only make this act of truthiness more widespread.

  5. Fabio Mengue

    Not very related, but the quote

    “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”.

    Reminded me of the movie Next stop Wonderland

    They use this quote all over the movie, and in the end… Well, watch it :).


  6. Dan

    Emerson’s is my favorite, but a close second is:

    “money is the root of all evil”,

    which omits the important initial modifier “Love of” …

    Topical, as well.



  1. […] But all journalists manipulate truth. When a journalist interviews you for 20 minutes on a subject, and then uses merely one sentence you said, they are choosing how to represent the truth. They are likely choosing the truth you said that fits the story they are already building. Is it true you said what you said? Yes. But will it be true in the context of the article? Maybe, maybe not. A 1500 word piece can not encompass the entirety of anything. Journalists have to decide what angle to take, what slivers of facts to use, and how to fit the pieces together. We hope they keep everyone’s integrity intact, but that is often wishful thinking. (Also see the use and misuse of quoting people) […]

Leave a Reply

* Required