I love to read and write. My father was Chairman of our local public library when I was a young boy and I cannot recall a time in my life when a book was fewer than a few feet away from me. Over the years, I have published many articles and book chapters, and am at work at this time on three books for major publishers – Oxford University Press, University of Illinois Press, and Encore Music Publishers. I am a stickler for grammar and punctuation and I take care to craft sentences that clearly express my thoughts.
One of my favorite quotations (note: it is not a quote, it is a quotation) about the importance of words is from Duke Ellington, from a 1944 article about him in The New Yorker magazine. Ellington said:
You can say anything you want on the trombone, but you gotta be careful with words.
Indeed. Words matter. Words can express the most tender emotions of the human soul and words can also start wars. We need to be careful with words.
I have long been familiar with a quotation by Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate whose name is associated with the Pulitzer Prizes for excellent writing. The quotation is in the image above, taken from the Pulitzer Prize website. It’s a superb quotation that is a real inspiration to writers. But this quotation has a problem. A big problem.
Pulitzer didn’t say it.
I wanted to use this quotation in a book that I’m writing so I decided to track down its source (note: that’s its, not it’s). This proved difficult to do. If you Google the quotation, you will find it reproduced on countless websites. But never with a citation. And every author knows you need a citation if you’re going to quote something.
After a long search, a good friend of mine located the source. It is in Alleyne Ireland’s 1915 book, Joseph Pulitzer: Reminiscences of a Secretary. It is here that Pulitzer’s famous quotation is found, on pages 68-69:
And when you read it, you see a very big problem.
Compare the popularized version of the quotation with the actual quotation:
Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light. [Popularized version]
…put it before them briefly so that they will read it, clearly so that they will understand it, forcibly so that they will appreciate it, picturesquely so that they will remember it, and, above all, accurately so that they may be wisely guided by its light. [Original version]
What happened? Two phrases of the original got conflated into one phrase; what originally was “clearly so that they will understand it, forcibly so that they will appreciate it” became “clearly so they will appreciate it.” “That” and “so” got removed from all phrases. But there is more. “Wisely guided by its light” became “guided by its light.” And what is IT, the subject of the whole quotation? IT is not identified in the popularized version. But in the original, IT is identified. IT is “the truth.” Here’s the full quotation with its important subject now in place:
…it’s my duty to see that they get the truth; but that’s not enough, I’ve got to put it before them briefly so that they will read it, clearly so that they will understand it, forcibly so that they will appreciate it, picturesquely so that they will remember it, and, above all, accurately so that they may be wisely guided by its light.
The irony of the mangling of this quotation is obvious. Here are the words of a man that have been twisted to to give meaning that he didn’t intend and to NOT give meaning that he DID intend. And the whole point of the quotation, “above all” as Pulitzer said, is that the truth is given to people “accurately.” In this popularized version of Pulitzer’s words, accuracy has been thrown out the window. Even the Pulitzer Prize website can’t get the words of its famous benefactor right. What a shame.
Words have meaning. Words matter.