Coping with Quotations

By Mark Nichol

A stock element of effective writing is to employ a quotation by a noted writer or other famous person to illustrate a point. But take care that when you seek to strengthen your work by alluding directly to another’s, you don’t in fact weaken it by committing one of the following errors:

Attributing the Quote to the Wrong Source

The Bible, William Shakespeare, and Mark Twain are sources of many memorable sentiments, but not every one. Some expressions or observations are paraphrases from Scripture, lines from other playwrights, or witticisms that Twain (or Benjamin Franklin, or Abraham Lincoln, or one of the other usual suspects) might wish he had actually thought up. (Sometimes, they are reworkings or inventions of biographers or other commentators.) Before you attribute a quotation, confirm authorship.

If the source is doubtful, signal the lack of certainty by amending your statement of credit, for example, from “The observation of Benjamin Franklin . . .” to “The observation attributed to Benjamin Franklin . . .” or from “As Abraham Lincoln once said . . .” to “As Abraham Lincoln is believed to have said . . . .”

Misquoting the Original Material

Many quotations we take for granted are in fact not verbatim versions of the original statement. Sometimes, casual common use results in slightly altered wording becoming the standard interpretation. (See this list of misquoted quotations.) Again, confirm accuracy before repeating what you think someone wrote or said, or what a not-necessarily-reliable source passed on.

Sometimes, however, the error may be deliberate: At the close of the film version of The Maltese Falcon, private detective Sam Spade’s last line comments on what all the fuss was about: “The stuff that dreams are made of.” This insight is based on a line from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Don’t blame Dashiell Hammett, author of the story the movie was based on; the line, which didn’t appear in the original, was crafted by director/screenwriter John Huston.

It’s a potent phrase, revealing that Spade recognizes the futility of a quest to recover the titular treasure. But it also demonstrates that he is likely well educated enough to (slightly) misquote Shakespeare. To have him proclaim or even mutter, “The stuff that dreams are made on” would sound pretentious; the fact that he made a small error somehow makes his observation more authentic. Alternately, the character’s error might be a conscious decision: The preposition in “made on” implies that the “stuff” is a foundation for building dreams, while “made of” means that the “stuff” is the ingredient — Spade’s more accurate assessment, in this case.

Mistakenly Crediting Invention

Shakespeare is widely hailed as the inventor of hundreds of words, phrases, and expressions. It is true that he and some of his contemporaries are responsible for enriching the English language by preserving numerous vivid terms, witty turns of phrase, and trenchant observations — many of which we may use without realizing their origin — for posterity.

But it is more accurate to think of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers not as inventors of new words but as their distributors. We are forever in their debt for recording what they heard spoken on the street, at the market, and in the tavern — or at court — or the pithy prose from a speech or a letter, appropriating it for use in a play or a sonnet. It is to the Bard and his colleagues that we owe knowledge and use of words like hobnob, phrases such as “fair play,” and observations the likes of “All that glitters [originally, glisters] is not gold.”

In addition, Shakespearean scholars are revising their estimates of the dates of completion for some of his plays; therefore, a contemporary playwright or other author thought to have quickly borrowed one of his coinages may have actually coined the word himself, and Shakespeare may in fact be the borrower.

Although Shakespeare and others to whom we attribute such gems may have coined some of them, we err in invariably assigning them credit for their invention. It is better to say that someone popularized an existing word, phrase, or expression, which is laudable enough.

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2 Responses to “Coping with Quotations”

  • Divya

    As a writer of academic articles I know how difficult it is to dig down to the actual source. This is a great article. Love the Shakespeare example.

  • Precise Edit

    My favorite misquote is “Play it again, Sam.” That line is not in the movie Casablanca. The actual quote is “Play it, Sam. Play it again.”

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