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Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the danger of the misquote

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Jose Luis Magana/AP

(Read caption) The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial stands in Washington, D.C.

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In advance of the official date of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, workers scrambled to complete refinishing part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington where a disputed inscription was recently removed. The repair job is a vivid reminder of the problems that can result from not getting a quote just right. It’s a lesson worth remembering for authors who must use quotation in their work.

The King monument included a paraphrase that read: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” Here’s what King actually said: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other things will not matter.”

Critics of the paraphrase argued that it made King sound egotistical, while his original quote was much more self-effacing. The paraphrase also lacks the appealing rhythm of King’s rhetoric, which had been refined by his years in the pulpit.

It’s easy for most of us to see that this mangling of King’s words was wrong-headed, but the larger lesson is that this kind of misquotation goes on all the time, most visibly in the work of sloppy writers and researchers. Thanks to the Internet, misquotation tends to spread more widely than it once did, becoming rooted in the popular discourse and taking on a life of its own.

Just ask Martha White, the granddaughter of the late author and essayist E.B. White, who compiled “In The Words of E.B. White,” a collection of her grandfather’s most memorable quotations. Part of her motivation for the project was the opportunity to correct the E.B. White misquotes frequently found on the Internet and in public presentations. “Quotations have a way of shape-shifting, and like the best shape-shifters in mythology or fairytales, they can unexpectedly take on the characteristics of the work entirely,” Martha White wrote in an essay on the phenomenon.

As a case in point, she mentioned this ersatz E.B. White quote that spanned a lecture screen at 2011 Harvard Business School Conference: “I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult.”

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