Digital Culture

Clamping Down on Misquotation

Chloe Lam

Literature is all too often a victim of misquotation and misattribution. These mistakes, once made, proliferate at an alarming rate, entrenching what John Green never said and what Virginia Woolf said in slightly different words in the public memory. Or should I say public imagination?

For years my walls were adorned with inspirational (see: pretentious) quotes. My favourite was a slightly crumpled print out of Oscar Wilde’s famous saying: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Inspiring stuff, right? Except Wilde never wrote these words. Although this quote has been proven to be decidedly not his, it is still attributed to him repeatedly – Penguin Books featured this misattribution on their list of “12 Best Oscar Wilde Quotes”, and HuffPost similarly quoted Wilde incorrectly in one of their articles. If big names in the publishing and media industries are disseminating these mistakes to the public, can we be surprised that misattribution and misquotation of literature is so rife?  

Beyond the digital realm, literary misquotes can also find their way onto physical objects. In 2013, the Central Bank of Ireland misquoted James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, on a commemorative coin, accidentally printing an extra “that” which did not appear in the original text. Acknowledging their blunder, the bank took steps to ensure that “all new customers [were] informed about the error”. Misquotations on physical objects, it seems, are subject to far closer scrutiny than those in digital pieces like the HuffPost and Penguin articles, both of which still circulate online today without any kind of correction.

Can misquotation be prevented, then? Dr Franziska Kohlt reminds us of the glaringly obvious fact that “it’s so easy to check”. Taking a more proactive approach, the Quote Investigator attempts to clamp down on misquotation and misattribution, to discover “Who really said what?”. His extensive citation validates his sleuthing, and has led to his work being featured in major news outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times.

But one person can only do so much. Despite using the Quote Investigator’s work as evidence, these media outlets have themselves attributed quotes to the wrong literary figures (The Guardian can be added to the long list of Wilde mis-quoters). There seems to be far less regulation of misquotation and misattribution in the digital world – a symptom, perhaps, of what Franklin Foer calls the “hive mind”, a mind that is “intellectually incapacitated … with diminishing ability to sort fact from fiction”. After all, if media outlets and even publishing organizations consistently share these misquotations and misattributions online, is it any wonder that people don’t check the source or content of these quotes, that “fiction” becomes accepted as “fact”? 

It seems clear to me that we must hold these institutions to higher standards and scrutinize these quotes more closely ourselves, instead of taking these “fact[s]” at face value. Only then will we be able to kill off misquotations and misattributions before they can develop deeper roots in our collective imagination.