Be Careful When You Quote

If you include a quotation in your writing, make sure that it is correct.

For example, writers often misquote Mark Twain, who allegedly told a newspaper reporter, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Who hasn’t seen this one in print? But Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, never said that. The New York Journal, responding to rumors that Twain was on his deathbed in England, asked their English correspondent, Frank Marshall White, to get the writer’s response to these reports. Twain responded by sending White a letter in which he stated, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” See HERE.

Here is another widely misquoted saying. In the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Humphrey Bogart’s character, Fred Dobbs, asked a Mexican bandito, “If you are the police, where are your badges? Let’s see them.” To which the bandito is supposed to have replied, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” What he actually said was this: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!” See HERE.

Possibly the most notorious misquote has Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, in the film
Casablanca telling the piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson), “Play it again, Sam.” What he did say—referring to Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa Lund—was, “If she can stand it, I can. Play it!” See HERE.

Numerous authors attribute the expression, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley,” to Scottish poet and author Robert Burns. This is not, however, precisely what Burns wrote. The quotation comes from the penultimate stanza of a poem titled “To a Mouse,” which reads:

     “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
         Gang aft agley.”

American novelist John Steinbeck used these words to form the title of his novella, Of Mice and Men, which was published by the New York City firm Covici Friede in 1937. Covici Friede was a joint effort by Pascal Covici and Donald Friede. (By odd coincidence, for several years prior to 1922, Covici published a monthly newsletter in Bradenton, Florida. Were it not for a gerrymandered ZIP Code area created to give the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport a toney Sarasota address, My Rapidsoft Press LLC business would have a Bradenton address instead of Sarasota.)

See HERE and HERE for more on this. (Note that in some versions of the original poem the words mice and men are capitalized as “Mice an’ Men,” and the word agley is sometimes hyphenated as a-gley.)

Although you will frequently see the last three words of the Robert Burns line translated as “often go awry,” a more literal translation, which comes closer to the author’s prosody, is “go oft awry.”

These examples show that you should be precise in your quotations. We all make mistakes, of course, but in this age of near-instant availability of accurate source information on the Internet and its World Wide Web, there is no excuse for sloppiness in quotations.

Pick a Clean Design and Stick to It

Many desktop publishers run amok on this subject. One of the basic elements of a clean design is the typography, the choice of typefaces and point sizes of the type that you use in your publication. Here is an example from a real, published book where the formatter went berserk:


Here the author (or whoever designed the layout) chose a typeface for the header that is nearly unreadable. This is a fancy typeface, meant for things like artsy newsletters, not a serious work of non-fiction. The words are spaced so close together that they are difficult to tell apart. The typeface itself clashes with the typeface used for the body text. A sans-serif typeface like Arial or Helvetica (which are nearly twins) would look much better.

The formatter used the same typeface for the chapter titles. This typeface looks to be one named “Broadway.” Regardless, it was a very poor choice for this book.

Notice how much better the header would look in a typeface like Arial in an 18-point bold font:


As I pointed out in a previous blog, the best typefaces are those that work well together. You can select a typeface that complements the body text, which is normally a serif typeface such as Times Roman, Palatino, or Garamond, from the sans-serif typefaces that are available to you. You can set chapter titles, headers, and page numbers, in the same sans-serif typeface, with headers and page numbers in one point size and chapter titles in a larger point size so they stand out. You can also use a different typeface for the chapter titles if you wish. There are no hard and fast rules; just be sure the typefaces you pick look good together.

In many non-fiction books, you may also need to have subheadings. You can set these in the same typeface as the page headers, normally in a slightly larger font. You can also set them a slightly different sans-serif typeface, just so long as it goes well with the one used in the headers.

Here is a page from a well-formatted book,
First to Die: The Tragic Loss of the SS Vestris:


The header and page number are 11-point Calibri; the subheading is 13-point Calibri; and the body text is 11-point Georgia. Note that the first paragraph under a subheading has no first-line indent. This is standard book formatting.

The authors used 15-point
leading throughout (leading: the space between lines of text; rhymes with sledding).

To get a good feel for the art of formatting books and other publications, look at ones that are commercially published—avoiding those like the top example, which are a distinct—and ugly—minority. You are sure to pick up a good feel for this sort of thing if you study enough published books, looking at the formatting instead of reading the words.

Keep up with the Language

vintage typewriter
Our language is continuously evolving. It behooves you as a writer to keep up with the changes.

For example, take punctuation. We no longer use commas to separate things like junior or senior from names. Now you write
John Doe Jr. The same thing applies to the commas we formerly used to separate Inc. or LLC from the names of businesses. You now can write Unilever Inc. or Rapidsoft Press LLC.

We no longer use periods for most abbreviations. The old
sq. ft. for square feet becomes sq ft without the periods. One exception is the abbreviations for time of day: a.m. and p.m. It would look strange to write a.m. as am because it would look like the verb. (“At 7:00am am I going to the store?” simply looks and sounds wrong.) Some people duck this issue by writing the times without the m—seven o’clock in the morning becomes 7:00a and, in the evening, 7:00p. Take your pick.

Words are also changing. About forty years ago, William Safire wrote that the British word
pricey had nearly driven the word expensive from our language. Around 1984, another word, spendy, tried to replace pricey, but failed to do so; it never sounded right to me. Its use is confined mostly to the Pacific Northwest. Pricey was first used in 1932, whereas expensive dates to 1610. Language sometimes changes slowly; other times, quickly.

Another British term that has crept into American English is
spot on. I first saw this term in a 1978 letter from a British collaborator in a UFO investigation. “Your analysis was spot on,” he wrote me. It means the same thing as exactly right. Today in America, we commonly use the British term spot on.

Nowadays, we are rapidly replacing traffic circle with its British equivalent, roundabout. Don’t listen to the revisionists who try to tell you that there is a real difference between the two things. There isn’t. Well, there is one difference, and one only: on a roundabout the traffic moves clockwise, because the Brits drive on the left side of the road, whereas on a traffic circle the traffic moves counter-clockwise. This difference has proved fatal to many an American tourist driving a rental car in England. Americans do fine so long as they are on a straight road, but when they get to a roundabout, they instinctively turn to the right side—with predictably dire consequences.

A particularly picturesque British word that we’re beginning to embrace in America is
gobsmacked. I first saw it in Eric Clapton’s memoir, Clapton. It means flabbergasted, astonished, rendered speechless. Dating to ca 1959 around Liverpool, it derives from struck (smacked) in the mouth (gob: Irish/Scottish Gaelic) and is believed to come from the theatrical gesture of clapping a hand over one’s mouth. Safe to use in dialogue, but you’d probably best not use it in formal writing.

Then we have
mojo, a home-grown word. Believed to derive from ancient African traditions, it means a magic spell or charm. We use it broadly now to mean magical power. A good tennis player works his mojo on the courts. Preston Foster popularized the word with his song, “Got My Mojo Working.”

New words crop up continually. Keep your eyes and ears open and you can pick up many of them for yourself. Check the
new words section of the Oxford English Dictionary. More than 500 new words have been added to the first quarter 2017 edition of that dictionary.

We are fortunate nowadays to have Internet dictionaries that keep up with trends like these. Language is not a static thing; it changes constantly. Keep up to speed!