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Misquotes: Searching for Authenticity Online

October 27, 2011
by James Sullivan
Misquotes often spread virally through social media, highlighting the lack of skepticism by Web users when sharing poorly cited quotes. Students should learn to treat quotes with suspicion, and how to verify questionable quotes prior to use.

Understanding the Problem

The Internet is fertile ground for the proliferation of misquotes. Pithy quotes find their way into Facebook profiles and Twitter posts, where they multiply across the Web unencumbered by citations and original context. With online sharing an elaborate, electronic game of telephone, genuine quotes get warped in the retelling, leaving end-readers with misquoted material void of context. Surprisingly, the media is often just as guilty as the average Web user.

Because of the bevy of quote cites that make little effort to verify quotes before posting them, it can be difficult to divine a fake quote from an authentic one on the Web. The issue took on a global spotlight in the wake of two fake quotations that circled the Web after Osama Bin Laden was killed.

In the hours after the announcement of Bin Laden’s death, tens of thousands of people, including many media organizations and journalists, Tweeted the quote, “‘I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.’ - Mark Twain.” There is no credible evidence that Twain ever said this, while Clarence Darrow unquestionably wrote in his autobiography, “I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.”

Another widely circulated misquote was attributed to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “‘I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.’ - Martin Luther King Jr.” Megan McArdle of The Atlantic suspected it was a fake, and tracked down its origin. Here the confusion arose after quotations marks in the original post were carelessly expanded to encompass text that did not belong to King.

New York Times contributor Brian Morton illustrates the depth of the problem by outing a few commonly accepted quotes as fakes. He explains that popular misquotes tend to “recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions.” By condensing, simplifying and polishing the ideas of others, we turn their complex thoughts into “bumper sticker” slogans that work equally well on a greeting card or in an e-mail signature.

According to Morton, Gandhi never challenged anyone to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” And Thoreau never told anyone to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

Confronting misquotes of this nature is nothing new. In 1797, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend, "So many persons have of late found an interest or a passion gratified by imputing to me sayings and writings which I never said or wrote..." What has changed is that the Internet has made it easier than ever to find and spread false quotes. However, as we explain below, the Internet has also made it quite possiible, with minimal detective work, to verify them and contribute to the body of accurate quotes online.

Hollis Robbins, in her article for Inside Higher Ed, “Familiar (Mis)Quotations,” works through her process for debunking a pair of quotes that aroused her suspicion, and suggests scholars take an active role in stopping the flow of misinformation. If you can prove a quote is fake, she writes, become an editor on Wikipedia and say so. “With so many texts online, it may be easier than ever for amateur misquotations to breed, but it is just as easy for professionals to set the record straight.”

In a similar vein, writer Julia Pistell writes of her work in protecting the legacy of Mark Twain, in "Tweeting Twain Quotes that Never Were." Among the famous "quotes" that Pistell writes are incorrectly quoted or cannot be traced to Twain: "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated" and "Golf is a good walk spoiled."

Strategies for Identifying a Misquote

Scores of quote sites, such as  “Brainy Quote” nor “” invite anyone to contribute, and make little effort to verify the accuracy or origin of a quote. These sites rank very well in search engines, and students find them easily.

Students must be compelled to find authoritative sources—ones that verify everything they publish.
 Any quote that is not fully cited must be verified for authenticity before being used in a school paper. In order to be considered fully cited it must include who said it, when it was said, and where it can be found. Determining the authenticity of a quote often takes a lot of detective work. Unfortunately there is no sure-fire formula, and the truth may be buried beneath an expanse of misinformation.

Start by asking questions. Your answers to simple questions about the quote and the supposed author can help narrow your field of search. Whom is the quote attributed to? Would it likely have appeared in a speech, book, film, letter, newspaper article or interview? Are there specific databases you could search that might be useful? These could include archives of a person’s work, book and film databases, and newspaper archives.

Before you begin the arduous task of researching a quote, check to see if it’s on Wikipedia’s list of common misquotations.

A good place to start is with a Web search. A basic Google search will most likely be ineffective, so attempt to locate the quote in its original context using e-book archives and book search engines. Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Bartleby and JSTOR are likely to bring the best results. Next, check some of the quote resources referenced in the next section of this article.

The Web is a community, and despite the questionable information you can find there, it also offers you the ability to connect with people and start a dialogue. Wikiquote, despite the inherent problems of any Wiki to which anyone can contribute, can be a worthy resource because it enables multiple people to engage in a dialogue. It also often contains links to external sources in text and audio formats where applicable.

if your independent research is unavailing, are there any experts on the person to whom the quote is attributed that could have specific knowledge of its validity? Try contacting an academic or other historian.

Garson O’Toole, A.K.A. Quote Investigator, maintains a blog specifically dedicated to seeking the truth about quotations. His posts often answer questions raised directly by his audience, so if you’ve hit a dead end, consider contacting QI with your query.

For inspiration, and for an idea of the methodology one might employ when looking for evidence of a quote’s validity, read this Harvard Business Review blog post in which the author attempts to find some example of Henry Ford actually using the quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Where to Find Quotes Online

Here is a list of sites we recommend as being credible sources for quotations:

Bartleby is an e-text archive and reference site that offers users a searchable quote database complete with attributions.

The Phrase Finder is a collection of quotes that have been verified; as it explains, many of the phrases have been misattributed to others.

Quotations Book has indexed more than 20,000 Project Gutenberg books, and where applicable allows users to view quotes in their original context. The site also provides a built-in Google Books search feature that makes it easier for readers to locate citations. Keep in mind that not all quotes found here are properly attributed.

There are few, if any, people in history who are quoted more often than Abraham Lincoln. Fortunately, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln is a searchable database housed by the University of Michigan library.

Rsearchers at Monticello have created a page of legitimate famous quotes by Thomas Jefferson and another one of inaccurate quotes of Thomas Jefferson. It also provides a "how-to" guide to finding Jefferson quotes on your own.

For quotes by other U.S. founding fathers, try a search on Archiving Early America.

IMDB is a good place to search for quotes from film or television. Be sure to specify quotes as the type of search. Quotes can be searched by actor or title.

Fred Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” recommends a long list of quotation destinations around the Web that are worth a look.

The Library of Congress offers an authoritative list of scientific quotation sites from around the Web. Check out the mathematical quotation server at Furman University and the Mathematical and Educational Quotation Server at Westfield State College for an idea of what’s out there. 

The Moraine Valley Library provides serious researchers with a bibliography of useful quotations books.

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