Be Careful When You Quote

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

Keep calm and carry on
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.