Authors: Beware the Fake-Quotation Trap!

fake quotationsFor authors, the Internet offers broad vistas of knowledge and opportunity, but scattered in between are a few beds of quicksand. One of these is the fake-quotation quagmire: the growing trend of popular “quotation websites” to feature made-up quotes. The quagmire deepens each time a self-publishing author casually decides to decorate her writing with “something inspirational.” She goes to one of the quotation websites, scrolls through the list for her topic, and locates something that sounds flowery or properly motivational. She then cuts-and-pastes it into her manuscript, typically as a display quote.

The Dirty Little Secret behind Fake Quotations

What she doesn’t realize is that quotation websites are notoriously disreputable, to the point of laughability. They are born of (and fed by) people’s keyword searches for inspirational remarks. Someone copies a “famous-person quote,” which was borrowed from someone else’s use of the quote, and so on backwards … which should bring us to the original source: the time and place where the quoted individual first made the statement.

But that never happens. No source for the quote can be located. That’s because the famous person never made the remark. Whoever started the ball rolling simply wrote some flowery phrase and attributed it to someone renowned in hopes of giving their words some clout. It snowballs, the fake quotationsstatement is copied over and over, and soon the falsehood blankets the Internet.

Pretty soon the public really believes Ben Franklin said, “The Constitution only allows you to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

Oh dear.

Here are a couple of other zingers I recently found misquoted in an author’s manuscript I was editing:

“Music gives wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” This line is attributed to Plato, but if you’ve ever read Plato, you’ll know he couldn’t have written it. The style is completely different from the style the philosopher wrote in, and the concept is New Age sentiment, not Greek wisdom.

file000881450729This gem is currently being attributed to Saint Francis: “Start by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.” Compare the style and theme of that with the following actual quote from Saint Francis (source: his “Salutation of the Virtues,” written around 1247):

“Lady, holy poverty, may the Lord save thee with thy sister holy humility! O Lady, holy charity, may the Lord save thee with thy sister holy obedience!” Could anyone who ever read Saint Francis believe both “quotes” were written by the same man?

But people unfamiliar with the writings of Plato, Saint Francis, or Ben Franklin can be misled into thinking those statements are genuine. Which is why, as an author, you need to check the source of any quotation you put in your book, or risk looking illiterate and silly to your readers.

Ian Chadwick, a veteran reporter who has written about the fake-quotation quagmire, has these strong words to say: “If you don’t do the work necessary to confirm the source, what you post is no better than chain mail and spam. And the gods know we have enough of that online already.”

At Stake: Your Author Credibility

This issue is especially important to authors, because unless you’re careful, you may inadvertently mar otherwise well-written content with fake-quotation bloopers. And that undermines your author credibility.

How can you make sure you stay out of the fake-quotation quagmire? Here’s a trick I use while editing for clients. When I come across an eyebrow-raising quote, I Google it. I type the quote verbatim into the search bar. If the quote’s for real, I’ll find places on the Internet that list the source—the precise place (and sometimes the date) where the statement was originally made by the alleged speaker or writer.

fake quotationsOn the other hand, if all I find are quotation websites and people’s blogs quoting and re-quoting the lines, I can conclude the quote is a fake—a concoction of some charlatan who stole a respected person’s name to give own their “clever” words more impact. This, of course, is deception, and when it gets copied, the deception multiplies, and the ignorance spreads.

The Huffington Post some time back featured an article called Mark Twain Did Not Write Valentines. Funny and worth a read, it offers an interesting perspective on this problem.

If you’re looking at a famous-person quote that’s pat, flowery, or “motivational,” if it doesn’t sound like something the famous person would have said, they probably didn’t. You can find out for sure by doing a keyword search using the technique I described. Or you can type keywords into the search bar such as “Einstein fake quotations” or “Mark Twain fake quotations” and check out the listed offerings. Here is a site that is particularly useful for researching the validity of a quote:

fake quotationsIf the precise source of a quote is nowhere to be found (book, chapter, and verse), consider it a phony. Never use it in your writing. Fake quotations will make you look foolish to your educated readers.


Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional

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