I wish I’d said that; all you need to know about quotations

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Written By Clare Wadsworth

Top Tips For Quoting

Ingrid Bergman did not say: “Play it again, Sam.” Sherlock Holmes did not say: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Nor did Marie-Antoinette say: “Let them eat cake.”

Bergman said: “Play it, Sam, for old times’ sake.” Holmes said: “Exactly, my dear Watson.” “Let them eat cake” first appears in Rousseau’s Confessions’, written when Marie-Antoinette was only nine-years-old and there is no record of her ever having said it.

Here are the three top tips for using quotations:

  1. Verify!
  2. Verify!
  3. Verify!

As a writer and/or editor, one has a duty to quote accurately and to credit and always verify the source.

Whatever quotations you use, they should be pertinent, not too long, correctly attributed and used in appropriate context.

Is the quote to show how clever you are or to illustrate your point? Clearly,it should be for the second reason. Do you look for a relevant quote on the spot or do you save interesting quotations in a notebook as you come across them so that you always have applicable quotes up your sleeve for most occasions?

The beauty of browsing is being able to collect elegant new references to be used in due course. It’s a joy to find an interesting quotation that sends you off to read more of the source.

But the internet is full of too easily circulated, misattributed and, worse, wrong quotes. One must be careful about pulling random citations from cyberspace. Many quotations are incorrectly attributed to the ‘Ancients’ and the very famous (especially Gandhi, Einstein and Oscar Wilde).

It may be safer to stick to the Oxford Book of Quotations or Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and to check anything even faintly doubtful with Snopes.com, Ralph Keyes’ book The Quote Verifier or http://theydidnotsay.tumblr.com/

Louis Menand wrote a wonderful article called: Notable Quotables in The New Yorker in 2007 that is still well worth reading.

As an Old Etonian friend of mine said: “Quotes should give people a nice warm feeling when they recognise them. The best way to ensure this with a British audience is to attribute them all to Churchill. I have great admiration for anyone who invents quotes — much more inventive than going to the Oxford Book of.” And once you have enriched your writing through quotations, read this great post on being a better proof reader of your own work.