Arrant Pedantry

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Source Checking

In my current job making day planners, I get to read a lot of quotes. I don’t know who decided that day planners needed cheesy motivational and inspirational quotes in the first place, but that’s just the way it’s done.

One of my tasks is to compile databases of quotes and to make sure everything is accurate. The first part is easy. We’ve got a couple dozen books of quotations in the office, and if for some reason we want a little variety, there are countless sites on the internet that compile all kinds of motivational quotes.

Unfortunately, virtually all of our sources are unreliable. All but a few websites are completely untrustworthy; there are no standards, no editing, and no source citations. Most people seem to think that a vague description of who the person is (“actor,” “business executive,” and so forth) should suffice.

But surely edited and published books would be reliable, right? Not usually. Only one or two of the books in our office have real source citations so that we could track down the original if we wanted. Most just name an author, and sometimes they even screw that up—I’ve seen a quote by Will Durant attributed to Aristotle (it was in a book in which he discussed certain of Aristotle’s ideas) and another quote attributed to Marlene vos Savant. (For those of you who don’t know, it should be Marilyn vos Savant.) I can’t even figure out how an editorial error like that happens. Then there’s a quote from Jonathan Westover that pops up from time to time.

You begin to realize pretty quickly just how low the standards are for this genre of publishing. Most people don’t care about the accuracy of their inspiration—it’s the warm fuzzy feeling that matters. So things like research and thorough copy editing go out the window. It’s probably largely a waste of my time too. I doubt any of our customers would’ve spotted the errors above, but I feel like a fraud if I don’t try to catch as many of them as possible.

I’m beginning to realize that there are probably dozens of apocryphal, misattributed, or otherwise problematic quotes that I’m missing, though, simply because I don’t have the resources to track everything down. Googling for quotes seldom turns up anything of real use. And anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of our books are sourced entirely from the internet or from other unsourced collections of quotations. It might be an interesting study in stemmatics if it weren’t such an inane subject. Though sometimes I wonder if there are real origins for these incorrect quotes or if it’s just bad sources all the way down.

4 Responses to Source Checking

  1. weezer says:

    You could put “anonymous” or “author unknown” if you grow tired of searching for the person quoted. And that way the quote doesn’t have to be entirely accurate either.

  2. Jonathon says:

    “Anonymous” or “author unknown” is a cop-out. It just means you haven’t looked hard enough, or maybe the quote is fabricated and shouldn’t be used. Plus, improper or insufficient attribution could get us sued. And if we’re not concerned about accuracy, then we should just give up and make up all our quotes.

  3. TootsNY says:

    When I was the copyeditor of McCall’s, we ran a story w/ those little quotes of which you speak. I insisted that we had to give some sort of description of the person; their name alone was not sufficient, I argued.

    I won, and then we started tracking down the people who were quoted.

    We ran into one (and I cannot remember which quotation book it was from) that we could NOT find ANYWHERE. We spent 2 days looking. We couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t find this guy; heck, he was quoted several times in the book, surely he had to be famous!

    We even tried calling the publisher, and asking how to reach the author; no luck w/ them. Finally our research chief got the brilliant idea of looking for the author in the New York City phone book–bingo!

    We called him, and found out he’d died just 3 months before. His widow said, “Oh, he’d be thrilled to hear you want to run a quote by that person. That’s the name he used for all the quotes he made up.”

    I was staggered.

    I’ve since heard that, w/ books whose basic matter is not copyrightable, the publishers will insert something completely original material, so as to help prove their case should someone else completely “lift” their work and republish it.

    But it was really, really annoying.

  4. weezer says:

    I was only kidding, J-Dawg.

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