Quote Attribution: Research or Plagiarism?

As a speechwriter, I frequently incorporate relevant quotations into a client’s talk. Most of them are from books and literature that I have read, or speeches that I have heard, read, and seen. I always credit the source. I write: “As JFK once said,” “In the words of George Washington,” or even, “As Plato wrote.” That’s all fine. But what if you don’t remember where you heard it? What if you check the reference books, go out onto the Internet, or even Google it, and it still doesn’t show up? I have a rule of thumb:

1. If you honestly do not know the source, quote it: “As someone once said.” Then if a listener says: “Hey, that was Calvin Coolidge’s line,” you just give old Silent Cal credit in the next edition.

2. If I think I know, I’ll use something like: “I once heard this said of Henry Ford.” If it’s a classic funny line, I might write: “I think it was Mark Twain who said.”

3. If I have no idea at all, I’ll use: “Someone once said.”

The purpose is to use the quotation to support your premise, or make an important point, without laying false claim to the line itself. Also, by the reference to higher authority, you may wrap your point or argument in additional credibility.

Don’t over agonize about attribution anyway. It’s hard to find anything in recent times that wasn’t said, in perhaps a different way, back in Ancient Rome or Athens. I take this line as a guide:

I’m pretty sure it was that learned philosopher, Charley Brown who once said: “Don’t waste first rate devotion on a second rate cause.”

P.S. Someone recently sent me this quotation: “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that it’s hard to determine whether or not they are genuine.” -Abraham Lincoln

Thanks, Abe. Well said.


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