about the quotes

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Also see About Us , which covers the history and personalities behind the site and mailing.

the quotes themselves

We've learned to be a little skeptical about the quotations we add. Some things are repeated so many times that they take on a life of their own. They get separated from their authors, and different authors get tacked back on. As a result, we're getting a lot more cautious about what gets added, and when we spot anything fishy it gets corrected or deleted. ("If in doubt, throw it out" is easier when you have as many quotes on file as we do.) We recently found four variations of one quote, three variations of the text and two different authors, there is now only one.

When we discover that a quote was misattributed, and we have already used it in a mailing with that error, the archives are corrected to show the correct authorship. It's harder than it looks, but we want the site to develop a reputation for accuracy. Unfortunately, the only way to get that reputation is to actually be accurate.

Note that there are three components to a quotation: the text, the attribution, and the source. In other words, a quote is something said by somebody, and how we know about it. The vast majority of quotes here have the text and an identified author, all anonymous quotes have either been purged or researched. To the extent possible, quotes being added have the sources preserved in the database, in fact we are adding very few quotes that aren't sourced. Right now we have 126,941 total quotes, of which 70,557 are sourced; at 55.58% it's not what we'd like to see, but we can honestly say the most of the quotes are sourced. And it gets a little bit better almost every day.

There are those that get excited when they think a quote should not be attributed to someone unless we can prove that that person said it first. To the best of our ability, the quotes we include were spoken or written by the persons we identify, but there's no way we can be absolutely certain that nobody ever said the same thing before. Some of the great quotes of the '60s, i.e. from the Kennedy brothers or Barry Goldwater, were close paraphrases of things said by the great Roman orators two millennia earlier.

Which leads to another problem, the exact wording of English translations of foreign works. Choice expressions from Balzac or Voltaire, Nietzsche or Freud, Dali or Cervantes, da Vinci or Dante are only included here in translations, and all of them have been translated multiple times. We will never eliminate every duplication resulting from the best efforts of multiple translators. We can also never be sure we are keeping the one that is the absolute perfect translation of the original, given the choice of two or three we may just choose the one that sounds best to our ears.

Punctuation is governed by "house style" in most cases, and most quotes that enter the database were punctuated (and edited, actually) by editors of different publications who imposed upon them their own style. There are exceptions, of course; E. E. Cummings controlled his own punctuation at all times, and Horace Greeley was the editor of the newspapers his words appeared in. (And though Mr Cummings often wrote pieces without a single upper-case character, he never down-cased his own name.) With rare exceptions, quotations appearing here are in our house style, which prefers colons and semicolons to emdashes, and always includes the "last serial comma".

We use periods in abbreviations only when they are single-letter abbreviations such as S. for South. Contractions, which are multiple-character shortened forms, may or may not have apostrophes embedded in them as common practice dictates, but never have periods. Therefore you will see the following in either quotes or attributions: Mrs, Mr, Ms, Rev, Dr, Hon, Sr, and Jr. There is no reason to "save paper" by using abbreviations in an on-line publication, so you won't often find them used here at all.

British spelling is normally converted to American, unless the sense of the text is helped by preserving the original. A quote involving a driver's licence and a tyre being changed near a loch would be preserved, one that simply used travelling or analyse in passing would be translated.


We don't use them, for several reasons. First, something that George Harrison said in the Hamburg days or Winston Churchill declaimed as a journalist should not be attributed to Sir George or Sir Winston, and I don't want to try to keep track of when every quote originated so as to match the title with the time. Second, some titles are meaningful only to certain parts of the population. Although I have great respect for Julius II, John Paul XXIII, and Benedict XVI (for different reasons), I'm not a Roman Catholic and don't accept that any of these great men was the ruler of the Christian Church on earth. I accept without reservation the canonization of Francis of Assisi, but there are plenty of "saints" that I would dispute; it's easier, and less contentious, to sidestep the issue. Finally, the upper-crust types that attract titles tend to have long names to start with, adding "Ninth Earl of Northumberland" just gets too clumsy.

Significant titles attained by the authors of the quotes do appear in the profiles of those that appear on the Notable Quotables page, which will, one hopes, eventually be most of the authors in the database. Once someone reaches those exalted positions it becomes much more likely that their words will be recorded, thus the authors of high rank that make it into the database at all are likely to do so with enough entries to merit a profile.

where they come from

Somewhere in the mists of time, a collection of quotations was assembled and posted on the internet. (Actually, this was the early days of the Unix operating system and the place was the University of California at Berkeley. Said collection was used to serve "fortune cookies" to the user when they logged in, and is generally referred to as "the Berkeley cookie file".) If you look long enough, you will find a few quotes that are part of every online quote collection, with the same errors. The original editor included this collection, we think most of the problems have been purged, but they still pop up from time to time. As interesting themes come up for which we don't have enough quotes in the database, we go digging. Google is, naturally, the first place we turn, but the quality suffers. We actually draw fairly few quotes from other quote sites, both because of the quality issue on those sites that allow automatic submissions and the simple fact that our database is now larger than most. There are about 125 printed volumes of quotes here to draw on, in which the quality ranges from above average to very high, although that does involve a risk of typing errors, and no source is free of errors of transcription or attribution. Quotes submitted by readers are generally researched to confirm accuracy and attribution.

American bias

I deny having one! On the other hand, this is an English-language site, so there is a great bias toward English speakers in the collection. Being an American, I'm much more likely to come upon quotes from significant American figures than those from any other nation, and more likely to recognize their significance. Throughout most of recorded history, men exercised power in public and their words were often recorded, while women tended to operate from from some remove. It is possible that men have had the upper hand through most of history, but I don't accept that it is nearly as one-sided as many feminists maintain. Catherine de Medici ruled much of Europe during her adult life, but she had Richelieu out front as the public face, therefore we have several quotes from the cardinal and none from Catherine. A particular quote is more likely to be recognized as having "stood the test of time" if there is good span of years between the first utterance and the current date, and it is likely that the authors will only gain prominence later in life, which means that there is a strong relationship between getting your words into a quotation database and being dead, and probably dead at an advanced age. In other words, in any US-based collection of quotes there is inevitably a structural bias toward "DWEMs" - Dead White European Males.

Knowing the biases that stem from my native language, my location, my religion (I see I failed to mention that I've been a mainline Protestant most of my life, although the intensity varies), and my sex, I impose an editorial bias toward adding (or selecting for the daily mailings) quotes from women and cultures other than those derived from Western Europe. Given the fact that India is well-represented in both our subscription base and our web stats, and that at least half our audience is female, a good quote from a Hindu woman born and raised on the subcontinent is a gem we treasure. In the meantime, the quotes here definitely do lean toward dead men of European extraction.

theme choices for mailings

Whenever you undertake to publish on a regular schedule there is pressure to wisely choose what is published. Left to his own devices, an editor would soon demonstrate his own tastes, and a completely random selection offers nothing of value. For each day's selection we start with the calendar, looking for those who were born and the events that transpired on that date. Sometimes the choice is easy, but few sources of quotes merit this focus every year, so only a very small group (Jefferson, Shakespeare, Shaw, and Voltaire come to mind) are routinely featured on their birthdays. We generally try to rotate through at least three themes for any date, although some dates in history are devoid of significant events. We recognize major holidays, again tending to a US-centric calendar, although we stubbornly resist the tendency to move holidays to Mondays. Some protested when quotes from Robert E. Lee appeared on what was observed as Martin Luther King Day in 2009, said protesters not having noted that we had used quotes from King four days earlier, on his actual birthday.

From time to time we get requests from readers for themes. Sadly, these often don't trigger any spark that leads to a coherent mailing, but other times they will. Using them provides some additional variation. (Interesting events that suggest quotations are not uniformly distributed over the year. Some days are hard to deal with.)

quote selection

Or, "Why didn't you use my favorite, blah blah blah"? We choose quotes for the mailing to illuminate the theme or author, and to expose our readers to the widest possible range of material. The tools we use to select quotes each day display the date each quote was last used. Nobody needs to read Van's six favorite Thomas Jefferson quotes every 14th of April. Therefore, no two quotes ever appear together for a given theme or author. No quote is ever used twice in six months, and generally not in two years. So if we left out your favorite Jefferson quote, it's possible that our taste differs, but it's more likely that we've already used it several times!