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Accuracy, Attribution, and Citations

There is no shortage of websites that provide quotations, but there are three problems with most of these sites. Many of the quotes are inaccurate, or are attributed to the wrong person, or lack citations to the source of the quotation -- or a combination of all three.

How does this happen? And why? I think that a lot of the quotes and misquotes we see with incorrect or missing attributions or sources are really just people quoting quotes. In other words, when someone quotes "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety", they are not doing it because they just read Antony and Cleopatra or even know who Domitius Enobarus is. They are just quoting someone who copied that quote somewhere.


All too often, many quotes are paraphrases of what was actually said or written, or are otherwise mangled or inaccurate. Many of these variations are minor. How much does it matter whether Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant movie Network said "I'm as mad as hell" and not (as he is usually quoted) "I'm mad as hell"? Some quotes become better than their original. Captain Kirk should have said "Beam me up, Scotty" and Bogart should have said "Play it again, Sam." The version we use may not be what was said or written originally, but, sometimes, our new version is better than the original -- more succinct, more precise.

When the widely-quoted version becomes common, it effectively enters the language as folk wisdom, a proverb, a folk saying -- owned by all of us who repeat it. As such, the words are not inaccurate, but they are not a quotation. To be accurate we should cite the original and note in some appropriate way that it is different (e.g., "inspired by", "variation of").

But the problem of accuracy is larger than benign rephrasings. Not all quotes are improved when they are altered. The spectrum of inaccuracy can include rewordings that alter the original meaning of the original quote.

When we accurately attribute the quote and cite a source for that attribution, we understand its origins and history and better understand it.


The problem of misattribution is not surprising. As Corey Robin noted, "Ever since the Devil quoted Scripture, citation from authority has been a terrain of struggle. (Just ask any Marxist.)" In fact, this problem is so common that Robin, a professor of political science, has created a taxonomy of what he calls "Wrongly Attributed Statements" (WAS):

There are basically three kinds of Wrongly Attributed Statements.


The only way we can know that quote is accurate and is correctly attributed is to know the source so that it can be verified. The source cited must itself be an accurate record of what was said and who said it. Just saying that someone else quoted these words and attributed them to someone does not make a useful citation.

Does it Matter?

What's the problem? Does any of this matter? Why should we care?

One of the reasons that quotes are so popular is that we use quotes as shorthand for ideas and attitudes and insight. When we believe the insight, we are accurately expressing something we believe, so what's the problem? Indeed, we might think of quotes as being a lot like language in general -- both evolve over time and become part of folk wisdom.

Nevertheless, when we attribute a quote to a person, we are not just saying "I believe this"; we are also saying "this person supports my belief." If we attribute the quote to the wrong person, that claim is false.

And if we reword what that person said, we may be warping what that person really meant.

And if we don't provide an actual citation to where the words were said or written, we have no way of knowing the context of those words; maybe they were meant sarcastically or ironically. As William Germano said:

Can we advise, unironically and out of context, that "the quality of mercy is not strained" even if we know that The Merchant of Venice is a deeply complicated play sometimes masquerading as almost a comedy? Or that one should "to one's own self be true" even knowing that Polonius, who speaks these words in Hamlet, is a bit of a fool?

If we do not provide a citation, there is no way we can know if we are making these mistakes. And no one who hears us quote will know if we are accurate or not.

Citing quotes and providing accurate quotes does matter. No one should expect every coffee mug and bumper sticker to have a footnote, but when we have the space and the opportunity to easily and accurately cite a quote, we should. By doing so, we may actually cut down on the number of misleading coffee mugs and bumper stickers.

Luckily, if you are curious, there are some good sources you can use to track down a citation or check the accuracy of a quote. See my list of useful sources here:

It includes lists of other commonplace books, reputable quotation sources on the web, other good quotation sites, books, sources that document misquotations, and sources for researching and verifying quotes.


J. Jacobs ()