Are you preparing a presentation or writing a report, memo or article? Would you like to use a famous quote? Allow me to give you some inspiration:

“A person who won’t read has no advantage over a person who can’t read.” Mark Twain

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” Wayne Gretzky

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” Albert Einstein

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sigmund Freud

“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford

“The Chinese symbol for ‘Crisis’ is a combination of danger and opportunity.”  Anonymous

Aren’t these great? And so inspiring.

There’s only one problem. They’re all wrong.

You can find these quotes, and many others of course, all over the internet. But do a little research and you’ll learn that:

  • No one can find the original Mark Twain source for the quote about reading. In fact, the original source was more likely a state school superintendent or perhaps an advertising article. You can look this up on Quote Investigator, a unique and interesting website.
  • And Wayne Gretzky’s quote that shows up in almost every business presentation to illustrate the need to think ahead? Well, according to FastCompany, his father said it.  The real quote is, "Go to where the puck is going and not to where it has been." And, according to those interviewed in the article, the advice isn’t really all that great. What athlete would go where the puck had been?
  • Einstein's quote about miracles? He said a lot of smart things, but not that. As this website writer says, “While the sentiment is nice, there is no evidence Einstein ever said this.” And that also goes for another quote attributed to Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Sorry, not Einstein.
  • Sigmund Freud had quite the sense of humor. Or maybe not—at least not in this case. Here’s the scoop on that cigar quote from Quote Investigator.
  • Henry Ford’s quote is found in over 600 references according to Wikiquotes. Heck, I've even used it in my blog.  But no one can find the original source and it appears to be connected to a poem written by someone else.

I confess—I’m a quote junkie. My presentations and writing are peppered with them. I share them with clients. I write them on little Post-it notes and place them around strategic locations.  One of my favorite books, passed down from my English-major parents, is Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I grew up immersed in that book, finding writers whose quotes made me want to read more of their works.

But Bartlett’s is one thing; the internet is another.

Quotes provide gravitas to our thoughts; proof that someone even smarter than us said the same thing. A good quote is memorable, illustrates a concept, or motivates the audience. It can amuse or inspire. It supports our argument and makes whatever we say somehow more profound and worth saying.

And I used to quote freely. From books, movies, TV shows, you name it. But I first became aware of the the lack of accuracy in quotations when I was writing my book, You Majored in What?. I opened each chapter with a quote, and my publisher insisted that I vet every quote and provide the original source. How depressing an exercise that turned out to be. During the process I had to abandon some wonderful quotes that couldn’t be sourced or verified.

Sometimes quotes are accurately stated, but credited to the wrong person. The famous Nelson Mandela quote which begins “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate” was actually written by Marianne Williamson and published in her book, A Return to Love. A quote often attributed to Bobby Kennedy is actually from George Bernard Shaw (“You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’”). Another well-known quote, "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results," has been falsely attributed to Sigmund Freud, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain. The source has been tracked down to a Narcotics Anonymous text.

So forewarned (and working in an academic setting with a lot of smart people who will likely know when I’m misquoting) I have learned to “find the source” before I quote. It can be an annoying task, but unfortunately in our internet-based world, a necessary one. And don't trust those online generic quote sites.  Many of them simply continue the ruse. Dig a little deeper.

I now admit to being a little cynical when I see the latest motivational poster. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite companies is Despair Inc which creates the Demotivator posters. They turn the whole motivational quote industry on its head. One of my favorite posters shows a sinking ship, with the quote: “MISTAKES. It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”

I like movie quotes because, well, I like movies—and it’s easy enough to go directly to the source and quote the line accurately, although apparently movies get misquoted all the time.

An interesting element of movie quotes is that it's the actor or the character to whom the quote is usually attributed: not the screenwriter.  When I use one of my favorite quotes, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” I credit Clint Eastwood (from Magnum Force). I don’t credit the screenwriters, John Milius and Michael Cimino, nor does anyone else. While perhaps unfair, it’s obvious why we do this—if I cited Milius or Cimino, my audience would say, “Who?,” and the quote would lose some of its impact. On the other hand if I cite “Clint Eastwood” or even "Dirty Harry" as the source, everyone nods their head and smiles. Fame trumps truth.

And that might be the genesis of a lot of misquotes. Better to attribute that inspirational or brilliant thought to someone already considered brilliant. Even if it takes one down an erroneous road. Or, as in the words of the newspaperman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

How to sum this up? I think if the quote fits your presentation or document, use it, even if it has a shady history. But if you want people to know you’ve done your homework, consider telling the real story behind the quote. Sometimes the backstory is more interesting than the quote itself.

Just keep in mind this other famous quote found on the internet:  "The problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy." –Abraham Lincoln, 1864

 ©2013 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons Umjanedoan

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