Friday, May 22, 2015

Beware Using Online Quote Sources

(This is a guest blog by Bob Hartig.)

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

What a pearl of commentary on the value of life experience! Leave it to Mark Twain to put it just so.

Except it’s not Twain. Not exactly, anyway. It’s a misquote of the kind that proliferates online through quote aggregators such as BrainyQuote, Lifehack Quotes, and Goodreads.

These sites have their purpose. They are great resources for speakers who want to season their presentations with colorful quotes. But there are good reasons why you should never use them in writing.

For one, they’re notoriously inaccurate. Misattributions and misquotes are common. Many quotes have no certain source, as you’ll discover if you ever have to research them.

And you will have to research them if you’re going to provide adequate documentation. You know: endnotes or footnotes that give complete publishing information. Showing nothing more than a URL for the source isn’t sufficient. Does it really matter that much? Yes it does, if you wish to write responsibly.

Finally, there’s the matter of credibility. Quoting another writer implies that you’ve actually read his or her work. Endnotes with entries like “Lifehack Quotes, http://andsoandso” tell readers you’re not as literate as you first seemed, and an editor for a publishing house may reject your manuscript on the basis of poor documentation alone.

If you like to use quotes, then quote from books and articles you actually read. Record any excerpt you like in your own book of quotes, and include the author’s name, the book title and subtitle, and the page number. And be able to access your sources in order to provide full publishing information.

So what did Mark Twain actually say? Here are his exact words: “Uncle Abner said . . . a person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was gitting knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn’t ever going to grow dim or doubtful.”[1] Tom Sawyer is the speaker, and the book is Tom Sawyer Abroad. Good luck finding out any of that from any of the popular quote sources, though. You’ve got to go to the book.

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Bob Hartig, a freelance writer and editor, served for fourteen years as the copy manager at Zondervan Publishing House before going into business as The CopyFox (www.thecopyfox.com). Bob is also a jazz saxophonist, a storm chaser, and the author of The Giant Steps Scratch Pad.


[1] Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad (Auckland, NZ: The Floating Press, 2008; first pub. 1894), 116.

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