Attack of the “air quotes”

Let me get this straight: You didn't think about double-checking the quote before making jewelry out of it? I ... give up ...

Let me get this straight: You didn’t think about double-checking the quote before making jewelry out of it? I … give up …

While shopping recently, I was reminded of my work.

Yes, I’m a sick puppy and I need help. I’ll get right on that.

While looking for jewelry-making supplies, I found bracelet tags with quotes on them, one more appropriate for me than others—“Well-behaved women rarely make history”—with the quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.

The offending bracelet tag.

The offending bracelet tag.

Silly jewelry-supply company.

Though it does sound like something Mrs. Roosevelt would have said (a little more likely than Marilyn Monroe or Anne Boleyn, also reported to have said it), it wasn’t her.

According to Quote Investigator, it was actually Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (though with “seldom” instead of “rarely”) in an academic paper printed in American Quarterly in 1976.

Ulrich, now a Pulitzer Prize winner for A Midwife’s Tale and a history professor at Harvard, later wrote a book based on the quote which since 1976 has shown up on bumper stickers, t-shirts … and now jewelry supplies, though wrongly attributed.

We run into misattributed quotes all the time on the Voices page, most often from the founding fathers, which is why I have sites like Quote Investigator and bookmarked on my work and home computers. As in life, if a quote sounds too good to be true, it usually isn’t.

Benjamin Franklin is connected to many quotes he didn’t originate, partly due to his appropriating, without attribution, pithy sayings for Poor Richard’s Almanack. Thomas Jefferson is so prolific in his quotes that apparently he’s still making them nearly 200 years after his death.



But it’s not just the founding fathers who have words put in their mouths, as that bracelet tag shows. One of the most misattributed personalities is Mark Twain, who said plenty of clever things of his own.

Yet there are quotes he just didn’t say, and many where the provenance is uncertain, or where he quoted someone else and that suddenly became a Mark Twain saying.

Usually when we run into quotes that are misattributed, we cut them out unless they’re integral to the point of a letter; in that case we may hedge the quote’s attribution to be safe, or throw the letter out entirely.

However, we run into not just misattributed quotes, but also outright misquotes. Sometimes it’s a simple transcription error, but more often, it’s words dropped without the elisions noted, or paraphrases (sometimes not even true to the quote) with quotation marks around them.

I call that “Attack of the air quotes.”

You’ve seen those in letters and columns before, with quotes around certain words and phrases, and you can almost picture the writer, hands in the air a la Dr. Evil, making air quotes to show his disdain for something with which he clearly doesn’t agree.

"Of course" I "believe" you! GIF from

“Of course” I “believe” you!
GIF from

I came across one last week that, when I saw the quote, I was pretty sure that that person had not actually said it as it was not in the least bit lawyerly:

“The suit was filed because Hobby Lobby doesn’t want their employees to use any form of birth control.”

She's not evil, really. And yes, she made too broad a characterization. Image from

She’s not evil, really. And yes, she made too broad a characterization.
Image from

The tone of that “quote” really doesn’t sound like Hillary Clinton, an attorney at Rose Law Firm in Little Rock when Bill was Arkansas governor,  as well as a political wife and politician herself.

I checked to make sure, and found the actual quote:

“It’s very troubling that a salesclerk at Hobby Lobby who needs contraception, which is pretty expensive, is not going to get that service through her employer’s health-care plan because her employer doesn’t think she should be using contraception.”

Hmmm. I could be wrong, but it looks like that first quote isn’t a quote from Clinton at all.

Naw, I’m not wrong on that. It was an oversimplified and inaccurate paraphrase cloaked in quotation marks, and it wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like that … nor will it likely be the last.

Reality Check by Dave Whamond from

Reality Check by Dave Whamond from

Writers at the Democrat-Gazette, including myself and my boss, Paul Greenberg, are also frequently misquoted or have words put in our mouths (chocolate only, please) … unfortunately no one has tried to make us look more brilliant than we actually are (why not???).

If people will so happily misquote us, why would we think they wouldn’t do the same to someone else?

I use the same rules on quotes for letter-writers as I do for the columnists: Quotes must be accurate and correctly attributed.

One of the most important rules in journalism is to get the quotes right. I worked in broadcast for a while, so I know how to listen for soundbites.

Quotation-Amy-Waldman-reality-Meetville-Quotes-15392But if you’re re-editing the quote to fit the story you want to tell, that’s not truth as far as I’m concerned. We can’t print entire transcripts in the text of stories, so writers must be extra-vigilant to avoid purposely taking something out of context or editing too selectively.

There is a school of journalistic thought that it’s OK to “clean up” quotes, which for some includes correcting grammar, paraphrasing entire sections but retaining the quotation marks, or taking words out but not indicating it. I think that’s a questionable approach that’s just asking for a lawsuit.

For the Voices page, “enhancements” (see what I did there?) of quotes, such as adding your own thoughts or descriptors to make them fit your point, won’t fly. You can add something in brackets if absolutely necessary to make it clear what the speaker is referring to, but that’s about it.

Generally, just give us the quote as it should be and nobody gets hurt.


10 thoughts on “Attack of the “air quotes”

  1. I don’t know what bothers me more, cleaning up a direct quote by correcting someone’s bad grammar, or quoting exactly when doing so will probably embarrass the person quoted (eg, some heartfelt sentiment from an illiterate person or someone who inserts “you know” after every word). Verbatim quotes of spoken language can be painful to read.


    • That’s true, but I think there’s almost always a way around it, even if you have to paraphrase most of what was said for the sake of one not-painful heartfelt quote.
      There are some writers who routinely “enhance” quotes, so much so that you start thinking there are an awful lot of people out there with the same speech pattern, and that is a definite worry for me.


      • Nope, enhancing not acceptable. Quotation marks mean direct quotation. Anything less (or more) is not a direct quotation and doesn’t deserve quotation marks. To add them would be to risk misleading the reader or worse, misrepresenting the speaker.


      • That’s something I wish more people would understand. It’s bad enough when they take a tiny snippet out of context to misrepresent someone, but putting your own words in someone else’s mouth is just wrong.


  2. You addressed one of my biggest pet peeves today in your blog post/column. People on Facebook seem to be some of the worst offenders, which drives me crazy. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when you read letters to the editor. Thanks for sharing the sites for checking quote sources. I believe I have seen the “Well-behaved women…” quote on greeting cards, and it was not attributed to Laurel Ulrich. Now I want to go to a greeting card section at a store and verify that the quotes are correctly attributed. When I do that (once I’m off crutches and get the house cleaned), I’ll report my findings to you.


    • Doesn’t surprise me at all, and that’s one of the reasons I avoid Facebook: Far too many people display their ignorance. Previous editors weren’t as careful about quotes, but I really don’t want to put things in that aren’t correct if I can help it.
      I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of greeting cards have incorrect attributions. Careful, though: You might become as obsessed about this stuff as I am, 😉


  3. It’s too late. I’m already obsessed. My son (now 14) was probably the only 2nd grader with a Works Cited page on a report. I’m glad you are so careful regarding accuracy.


  4. That’s part of your charm.

    I don’t remember if I mentioned the time I wrote a letter to the editor in Temple, TX, because the paper published a “chain e-mail” someone copied and claimed as his own. That ticked me off. I went straight to the computer and fired off a letter about the plagiarized letter writer and the lack of fact checking on the paper’s part. My letter was published, too. I’m not a rabid letter writer, but I couldn’t let that one go.


    • Good for you! I wish more people would point that stuff out. If people continue to just believe everything they’re told by whatever they listen to, we’ll remain stuck like we are now. Sure, it provides entertainment when they flail so pitifully in trying to defend their shaky positions, but it’s no way to move forward … oh, crap … I used the word “forward” .. that obviously makes me a Marxist. I should go hide … or to sleep … I’m going with sleep. 😉


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