“Where do you get your quotes?” I am often asked.

Actually, quotations are all around us — in the books we read, the web pages we browse, etc.  The trick is not so much where you can get your quotes is where you can research them to (a) find citations, and (b) verify they are real.

Citations are important because …

  1. So many quotations out there are misstated, misattributed, or just out-and-out fabrications. Franklin, Twain, Lincoln, Churchill, Einstein, and others have been magnets for “Hey, that sounds good, let’s put it in the mouth of someone whom everyone admires” errors over the years. A quotation without citation should always be questioned, even if “everyone” quotes it; any quotation site (or book) that doesn’t provide citations should be considered of dubious value.
  2. They can give context as to the period in the author’s life to which the sentiment pertained. The John Adams of the Revolutionary period had some very different ideas than the John Adams at the end of his long life.
  3. They can give context for the quotation itself. More than once I’ve actually found the original of a quotation and discovered the context either gave a very different feel to the sentiment, or sometimes turned the message completely around.  Sometimes they even make it clear the person was quoting someone else!

As a general rule, I would warn you to beware a lack of citations. There are a lot of quotation cites out there, many of them with slick interfaces, and the vast majority just scrape content from one another without any ownership, effort, validation, or, sometimes, spell-checking. For myself, wherever possible, I try to give a citation, a source reference, for the quotation — not something that would necessarily stand up as an actual footnotes, but enough to help someone find the original material. If I have an online primary source, I’ll provide Source link as well. Anything that I can’t find a trustworthy or primary source for, I note as “(Attributed)”.

Here are my favorite sites for research:

  • WikiQuote is by far one of the most outstanding sources on the Internet for quotation research.  Massive and crowd-sourced, you can find a heck of a lot there. Because it is crowd-sourced, sometimes the formatting, completeness, and even accuracy of the information can be sketchy. Trust but (if you can), verify. Wikipedia also can be of assistance here, especially in further research about authors.
  • Google is, of course, the researcher’s friend.  The problem with Google and quotations is that a lot of quotes are on popular sites and have no citations with them.  A great way to refine the research is through Google Books (change the search over to the Books tab) — this gets you access both to some books of quotations and, more importantly, to a heck of a lot of primary material.
  • IMDB (the Internet Movie Database) has extensive quotation collections from movies and TV.  It’s crowd-sourced, though, and the quotation quality is sometimes dependent on the memories or transcription skills of the contributors (a single movie will often have multiple versions of the same quote listed). The same can be said of Goodreads — a good place to look for things initially, but not a wholly reliable source for citations.
  • Bartleby Quotations isn’t as useful as it used to be, since they trimmed back the sources listed. However, it still has a Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1919 ed.) and Respectfully Yours, so it’s good searching. A lot of the material, but not all, is mirrored in WikiQuote.
  • The Quote Investigator does excellent research into the sourcing of common but poorly cited quotations.  It’s worth a daily read whether you are actively working on quotations or not.
  • Barry Popik’s Big Apple blog similarly does a lot of research into quotations, among other literary items.

As for places to browse or look for quotations themselves, aside from WikiQuote (and, of course, WIST), I recommend:

While there are many other sites online, these are particularly good at noting citations, and make for fascinating grazing.

If you have other recommendations, in either category, please leave a comment. Thanks!

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