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Finding Quotations

Quotations and Misquotations

Mark Twain. c1902. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. More quotations may be incorrectly attributed to Twain than any other writer.

So what, exactly, is a quotation? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a quotation, also known as a quote, as "a passage quoted from a book, speech, or other source."1 While any group of words may be turned into a quotation—reproduced and circulated beyond the original circumstances of its production—certain characteristics, such as brevity and memorability, make some passages more ripe for quotation than others. The most popular quotations are often small gems of concision and memorable expression.

The original source of a quotation may be anonymous—as with many of the proverbs, maxims, and adages passed down through generations—or traceable to a specific person, the quotee. In an ideal world, every quotation would come equipped with a citation identifying the quotee, the exact date of the quotation, the context and earliest documented source of the quotation, and any other information necessary for verifying its accuracy. Unfortunately, even during the years when print quotation dictionaries such as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations were users' primary tools for identifying the sources of quotations, this has never been the case: errors, omissions, and incomplete data inevitably appear even in the best resources.

With the rise of the Internet in the 1990s and the proliferation of quotations, misquotations, and falsely attributed quotations on websites and in social media, conducting quality quotation research requires more care than ever. Fortunately, along with the increased challenges to quotation research provided by an expanding digital information landscape have come new tools for solving those challenges. In particular, the rise of full-text, historical book and periodical databases—both free and subscription-based—along with online communities and websites devoted to serious quotation research, has greatly facilitated accurate identification, verification, and attribution of quotations.


NOTE

  1. "quotation, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018. Accessed 29 March 2019. Back to text