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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Quotations: Let the Reader Beware

Yesterday's post involved false Lincoln quotations. Today is a followup, less about the substance of politics than the process of research. Whatever the field, it is important to doublecheck your facts -- a misquotation provides an example of what can go when people get sloppy about it. An excellent book on dubious quotations is The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes. A short excerpt:

Quotes without citations should be treated with the utmost suspicion. When a quotation routinely shows up in compilations with no source, there probably is none. “Nice guys finish last,” for example, spent so many decades associated with Leo Durocher that this attribution took on its own credibility, despite the fact that no one knew when or where Durocher had said this (because he hadn’t). Despite copious searching, the origins of the quotation most associated with Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” remain a mystery. When a source is cited for that quotation, it is always secondary. This is a risky type of ascription. Such sources sometimes cite yet another source that is one or more steps removed from a quotation’s point of origin.

Even when a primary source is cited in a secondary work, without examining that material one cannot be confident that the citation is accurate. Wrong chapters of books and inaccurate page numbers are routinely referenced, and wording is often garbled. Alternatively, a quotation will show up where it’s said to have appeared, but prove to have no reliable citation, or none at all. In such cases it’s the uninformed citing the ill informed. Phantom citations appear regularly, even routinely, and even in reputable works of reference.