The common peril of ill-cited quotations

A perfectly placed epigram can go a long way; a misquote or a witticism attributed to the wrong source can undermine your credibility. Here are 11 common misfires.

You should double-check every Mark Twain quotation you use.

That’s what Aristotle said, anyway.

Many people pull quotes and memes from the internet and assume that publishers-at-large have done their due diligence and fact-checked quotations attributed to Mark Twain, Martin Luther King and others.

On the internet, however, the quote is often misattributed, and the speaker, or tweeter, can be left with egg on his or her face.

One-time White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci found his tweets under extra scrutiny during his limited stint in public office—and one tweet from 2012 stood out.

HuffPost wrote:

The new director posted a tweet attributing a quote to author Mark Twain that is a little hard to believe.

“Dance like no one is watching,” Scaramucci tweeted back in 2012. “Sing like no one is listening. Love like you’ve never been hurt and live like its heaven on earth. Mark Twain.”

Twitter had a field day.

Some misquotes are flagrant; others can be more difficult to catch.

Here are some commonly misused or misattributed quotes:

“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain; however, credit belongs to mathematician Blaise Pascal.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

This is widely believed to be a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. Although the sentiment closely resembles something he said, he never used this phrasing.

The New York Times wrote:

It turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”

This quote has been attributed to both Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, but the evidence suggests it came from a much later source: a 1907 book by Maurice Switzer.

In an interview with NPR, author Garson O’Toole shared how he trackeddown this quote:

“[The book] seems to contain a lot of original material and it includes the statement “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” So it’s slightly different phrasing, but I believe that is what evolved to generate the modern common version.”

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Often quoted as the writing of French writer Voltaire, this was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire.”

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.

This quote is often attributed to civil rights icon Martin Luther King; these words, however, were penned by Jessica Dovey.

Rawstory wrote:

[Dovey] originally paired her own words with a quote from MLK’s 1963 book Strength to Love, and clearly made King’s words distinct from her own with quotation marks. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the 140-letter count of Twitter resulted in the two statements being condensed into this misattribution.

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.”

After his death, many mourners offered these words as the legacy of South Africa President Nelson Mandela. The words actually come from a longer quotation from American author Marianne Williamson.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

The stuff of motivational posters and internet memes, this quote is also given to Mahatma Gandhi. He never said it.

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

She may be more famous, but Marilyn Monroe did not invent this feminist slogan. The credit belongs to Pulitzer Prize winning writer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

Oscar Wilde said many quotable things in and out of print; this is not one of them.

HuffPost writes:

Wilde did write in De Profundis that “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

This quote has been attributed to both Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, yet it does not appear in the writings of either wartime leader.

“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”

Churchill scholars assert the two-time prime minister never said this.

WinstonChurchill.com writes:

There is no record of anyone hearing Churchill say this. Paul Addison of Edinburgh University made this comment: ‘Surely Churchill can’t have used the words attributed to him. He’d been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35! And would he have talked so disrespectfully of Clemmie, who is generally thought to have been a lifelong Liberal?’

Communicators, do you have a pet peeve about a commonly misused quotation? Please set us all straight in the comments.

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