No, You May Not Use Brainyquote.com as Your Source (and Other Thoughts About Quotations)

Sure, it’s fun to google “quotes on compassion” or “quotes on sheep” or “quotes on interspecies love” (I’m joking) and see what you come up with. Especially if you’re an author in need of a nice epigraph. Something that will make you seem clever or well read. Preferably both.

But as your editor, I’d really rather these meaningful quotes be the product of … you know … your actual cleverness. Your actual well read–ness. I can tell if you’ve been visiting thinkexist.com at fifty paces. Usually it’s because that quote just doesn’t sound like the famous person to whom you’re attributing it. Or because the grammar (or punctuation) is incredibly bad.

Classic example: google this little gem—“In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock”—and you’ll be informed that Thomas Jefferson said it.

Seriously, dude—Thomas Jefferson? The man who wrote, “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

Read my lips: no. No, no, no.

I don’t know how people on the street spoke to each other in the 1700s, but we’ve got some really good records of how they wrote, and it sounds nothing like Thomas Jefferson. In point of fact, that line about style and principle appeared in a children’s magazine in 1891. (Read about it here, at a website you can trust.)

If you’ll look further than the first thing you see when you google a phrase, you may find the truth. But be forewarned, those stupid quote sites are going to be the first thing you see. (And they’re all copying from each other, thus mistakes—and they are myriad—get repeated, whether they’re misquoting or misattributing or both.) So don’t try to tell me that Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” He did not. (Read this and this.)

Nor did Winston Churchill say, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” (Have you read Churchill? I have. Honestly, it just doesn’t sound like him.) It was astonishingly easy to find this; I got a clue online and verified it myself. The quote appears in the “Red Herrings: False Attributions” appendix of Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations by Richard Langworth. (If Amazon displays the “Click to look inside!” logo, you can do a keyword search. You’d be surprised how effective this is. See page 570 and then 578 in this particular case.)

Here’s a related problem. If you’ve had to research quotes as much as I have, you’ll have noticed that one little pearl of wisdom is often attributed to two or more different sources. I worked on a book recently in which the author quoted John Wooden, the legendary and much-beloved UCLA basketball coach. Wooden was renowned for his pithy, wise sayings, which came to be known as Woodenisms (in fact, a whole book has been written about them). The author of the book I was working on cited BrainyQuote.com for this quote (an automatic out, in my book). And yet when I googled the phrase and moved beyond the quote sites, I found it attributed to both Harry Truman and Earl Weaver (a famous baseball coach) far more often than Wooden. (sigh)

Another problem I encounter is that quotes in isolation like this are very often so far out of context as to have lost their original meaning. There are certain ideologues who exploit this, of course. Which is why it’s so important to not only 1) get the quote right, and 2) get the attribution right, but also 3) determine the original source material. It’s one thing to use a quote as an epigraph but if you’re using it to support a claim you’re making, readers should be able to seek out the rest of the material. This keeps writers honest (or it should).

It’s not always easy to find the original source material; you might have to go to your local university library and borrow access to their LexisNexis account. Or, you know, check out a book or three. (Just sayin’.) I’ve been known to search through every single one of an author’s books on Amazon.com, using the look-inside feature. Again, this is why Your Editor would prefer you find your own quotes in meaningful material you’ve read yourself.

Yes, kids, the Internet can be used for good as well as for ill (I’m looking at you, Brainyquote et al). And remember: if I am your editor, you will not be citing a quotation site as a source.

Tweet:  Need a nice epigraph? Step away from Brainyquotes and no one gets hurt. 
Tweet:  Thos. Jefferson did NOT say “In matters of style, swim with the current.” Trust me. 

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , , , , , , | Bookmark the permalink | Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

15 Comments

  1. The Other Irishman says:

    Great post, Jamie! One of your best!

  2. […] Editing such a book must have been a pill. I’m so glad it wasn’t me. But I’ve had to make some tough stands with authors and their publishers when I have come across claims that felt “off” and subsequently proved they were. (Your Editor has a pretty well-developed Rotten-Denmark Detector, as we’ve discussed.) […]

  3. […] We’ve talked about quoting people—living and dead—and making sure we’ve done it correctly, but now let’s talk about what’s permissible to quote. […]

  4. […] I’ve done a fair amount of research myself in my editing years—fact-checking, name spellings, quotation research, and so on—and every bit of it has been done right here in the swanky second-floor office in the […]

  5. […] for a bank, at the centre of some major questioning about its own activities and context to be quoting Churchill out of context.  For me, that leaves more Unsaid than said – and what was said wouldn’t make a jot of […]

  6. Julie says:

    Do you know who did say “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”? I can’t find it anywhere as it is attributed to Churchill all over the place.

    • Jamie says:

      No, I haven’t a clue who did say it — only who didn’t. :) My guess is no one famous. It’s just a little platitude; folks hear it and they want to attribute it to someone famous so it will be “meaningful.”

  7. Actually I have little doubt about citation thing. If I have my own quotes, very original in words but ideas symbolizing from other authors or leaders or read or head somewhere (Lets say quotes are motivated or inspired) . Then can I publicize is it as my own? After all there voice were in public domain and I interpreted it in quote form. Very original Like a slang. I mean, in future they will not come and say “Hey man thats my idea or logic or theory.” (Do I need lawyer for this query?)

    Thanks..

    • Jamie says:

      This post is really only about making sure you’re quoting something correctly and giving it the proper attribution. Regarding citations—that is, citing the source of information, particularly when you are not quoting it directly—I would direct you to style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style and more particularly the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, which is an academic style guide and provides guidelines for writing and documentation of research.

  8. Mari Adkins says:

    Outside of the Bartlet’s online and Open Source Shakespeare, are their any online sources that you do recommend?

    • Jamie says:

      Not really. I google it, bing it, etc, keep poking around until something looks legit. Then I research THAT to see if it IS legit. :) I spend too much time on it, really.

    • Verimius says:

      I’m a few years late to the party, I know, but maybe my comment can help others who fetch up on these shores.

      I have found Wikiquote http://en.wikiquote.org/ to be a reliable source for quotations. Wikiquote gives the source for all its quotes, and has separate sections for quotes that are are misquoted or misattributed.

  9. […] with me on their nonfiction manuscripts know I can be a real stickler about citing sources and making sure we know where the information came from. Plagiarism is one thing; we know what it is because we learned about it in school. But employment […]

  10. […] We’ve talked about this before. And we were just talking about it earlier this week. Morton goes on to say, “When you start to become aware of these bogus quotations, you can’t stop finding them. Henry James, George Eliot, Picasso—all of them are being kept alive in popular culture through pithy, cheery sayings they never actually said.” […]

  11. […] to quote has been pursued. I can type “Where is the citation for this?” (alternately: “Where did you get this quote?”) in my sleep. When an author sends me a breezy little email—“Take a look at it. I know it may […]

  12. […] context for the quote. We can talk about this more if you need clarification; in the meantime, here’s a not-unrelated post you might be interested […]

  13. […] I’m cautious with sourcing quotes (“No, You May Not Use Brainyquote.com as Your Source”), getting permission to quote (“They Say It’s Easier to Ask for Forgiveness Than […]

  14. […] William Faulkner. And you may think I’m getting ready to rant about using care with attributions (I am not a fan of Brainyquote.com). In fact, I had set aside this interesting article from Slate (“Who Really Said You Should […]

  15. […] ✱ the importance of getting quotations worded and attributed correctly (“No, You May Not Use Brainyquote.com as Your Source”) […]

  16. Rafael says:

    I loved your post. I was editing a piece and the author had quoted the “pessimist” as a Churchill quote. I checked online to be sure and find a good source and found your post.
    As you suggested, I read Langworth’s book. Very interesting. So I am taking off Churchill as the source of the quote.
    I have a few quote books like Lawrence Peter’s “Peter’s Quotations” and other books that copy speeches. However, where can you find reliable, properly researched quote sources?
    Thank you!
    Rafael

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      It’s difficult. I start by trying to determine who said it—or who reliable sources seem to think said it—and then start working on the source (a book? a letter? a speech?). Wikiquote is actually pretty helpful in this regard. Then I start seeing if that book is available in searchable text online. I also try to determine the exact quote (sometimes they’ve been quoted wrong). I also have a list of quote sites, which you can see here (scroll to the bottom): http://www.jamiechavez.com/for-writers.php

  17. siddhesh says:

    Best post of you thanks for great post

  18. Bob Hartig says:

    Just came across this post and thought, “Hey, something by Jamie!” And on a great topic too. I’m so with you. BrainyQuotes and other quote aggregators may be common resources for public speakers, but they’re anathema for writers. Misquotes and misattributions aren’t just a risk, they’re a certitude, and they’re cheap as all get-out besides. I’m tempted to go off on my own little tear, but you’ve ranted quite satisfactorily on the matter. Thanks for calling it out!

  19. Bob Hartig says:

    Just came across this post and thought, “Hey, something by Jamie!” And on a great topic too. I’m so with you. BrainyQuotes and other quote aggregators may be common resources for public speakers, but they’re anathema for writers. Misquotes and misattributions aren’t just a risk, they’re a certitude. I’m tempted to go off on my own little tear, but you’ve ranted quite satisfactorily on the matter. Thanks for calling it out!

  20. […] read in a manuscript … and then I check it. I know my authors get tired of me leaving notes like: Actually, he didn’t say that. It’s been proven here. Or: I can’t verify that Lincoln was ever in Paris, can you? Or: If we do the math here, it makes […]

  21. […] No, You May Not Use Brainyquote as Your Source The Internet Can Be Unreliable Someone Is Wrong on the Internet! Falser Words Were Never Spoken […]

  22. […] pretty sure folks didn’t talk like that in the eighteenth century. (Of course, as I’ve noted before, we don’t actually know how people talked two and a half centuries […]

  23. […] and Brainyquote? They are not good sources. (I’ve written quite a bit about sourcing quotes here and here, and I’ve written about fact-checking here.) When you factor in people whose minds are […]

15 Trackbacks

  1. By Apparently Old Abe Carried a Cell Phone Too on 21 November, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    […] Editing such a book must have been a pill. I’m so glad it wasn’t me. But I’ve had to make some tough stands with authors and their publishers when I have come across claims that felt “off” and subsequently proved they were. (Your Editor has a pretty well-developed Rotten-Denmark Detector, as we’ve discussed.) […]

  2. […] We’ve talked about quoting people—living and dead—and making sure we’ve done it correctly, but now let’s talk about what’s permissible to quote. […]

  3. By Research—Online or Hands On? on 17 April, 2012 at 7:14 am

    […] I’ve done a fair amount of research myself in my editing years—fact-checking, name spellings, quotation research, and so on—and every bit of it has been done right here in the swanky second-floor office in the […]

  4. By Getting Quotes In Context | Step-Up Finance on 10 September, 2012 at 10:56 am

    […] for a bank, at the centre of some major questioning about its own activities and context to be quoting Churchill out of context.  For me, that leaves more Unsaid than said – and what was said wouldn’t make a jot of […]

  5. By Giving Credit Where It’s Due on 20 March, 2013 at 6:51 am

    […] with me on their nonfiction manuscripts know I can be a real stickler about citing sources and making sure we know where the information came from. Plagiarism is one thing; we know what it is because we learned about it in school. But employment […]

  6. By Short Saturday: Falser Words Were Never Spoken on 13 July, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    […] We’ve talked about this before. And we were just talking about it earlier this week. Morton goes on to say, “When you start to become aware of these bogus quotations, you can’t stop finding them. Henry James, George Eliot, Picasso—all of them are being kept alive in popular culture through pithy, cheery sayings they never actually said.” […]

  7. By Have You Hired Your Editorial Assistant? on 5 September, 2013 at 11:35 am

    […] to quote has been pursued. I can type “Where is the citation for this?” (alternately: “Where did you get this quote?”) in my sleep. When an author sends me a breezy little email—“Take a look at it. I know it may […]

  8. By Let’s Talk About Notes on 9 December, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    […] context for the quote. We can talk about this more if you need clarification; in the meantime, here’s a not-unrelated post you might be interested […]

  9. By Legal Issues (An Update, Sort Of*) on 5 June, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    […] I’m cautious with sourcing quotes (“No, You May Not Use Brainyquote.com as Your Source”), getting permission to quote (“They Say It’s Easier to Ask for Forgiveness Than […]

  10. By Short Saturday: Kill Your Darlings on 19 July, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    […] William Faulkner. And you may think I’m getting ready to rant about using care with attributions (I am not a fan of Brainyquote.com). In fact, I had set aside this interesting article from Slate (“Who Really Said You Should […]

  11. By Someone Is Wrong on the Internet!* (An Update) on 31 July, 2014 at 8:13 am

    […] ✱ the importance of getting quotations worded and attributed correctly (“No, You May Not Use Brainyquote.com as Your Source”) […]

  12. By Telling the Truth on 14 December, 2015 at 10:55 am

    […] read in a manuscript … and then I check it. I know my authors get tired of me leaving notes like: Actually, he didn’t say that. It’s been proven here. Or: I can’t verify that Lincoln was ever in Paris, can you? Or: If we do the math here, it makes […]

  13. By Short Saturday: Watch Those Quotes! on 21 May, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    […] No, You May Not Use Brainyquote as Your Source The Internet Can Be Unreliable Someone Is Wrong on the Internet! Falser Words Were Never Spoken […]

  14. By Let Us Now Quote Famous Men on 18 July, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    […] pretty sure folks didn’t talk like that in the eighteenth century. (Of course, as I’ve noted before, we don’t actually know how people talked two and a half centuries […]

  15. […] and Brainyquote? They are not good sources. (I’ve written quite a bit about sourcing quotes here and here, and I’ve written about fact-checking here.) When you factor in people whose minds are […]