#GettingStarted Series: 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.”

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  1. Patricia Boyd says:

    Whenever I see one of those pithy quotes in a business book I’m editing, my heart sinks. It means a lot of time spent finding the true source of the quote, which is often attributed to several people. And the time I spend further lowers my pages per hour. Unfortunately, the time I spend verifying the quote and source isn’t obvious in the way that rewording or fixing pages of copy is.

    • jamiechavez says:

      SO true! But I just refuse to perpetrate all these bad quotations. And I’ve gotten pretty good, over the years, of tracking them down. :)