Smoking out the bogus: Martin Porter’s “Four Principles of a Quotation”

March 25, 2014

Commenter SBH put me on to this interesting set of principles from a mathematician, on bogus quotes, and how to determine that they are bogus, and most important, how to avoid creating a bogus quote by stripping context or altering the text.

‘After all, a study I once read said something like 86% of all statistics cited in speeches are made up on the spot.’*

I looked up Martin Porter.  What are his principles of quotations?  Who is he, and why should we listen to him?

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century.

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century. Self portrait.

Turns out he’s a mathematician who works in algorithms to study language, and a founder of Grapeshot.  Along the way, he grew intrigued with trying to source a very famous quotation attributed to Edmund Burke (confess, you don’t really know enough about Burke to describe who he was, or why that quote might not be his, right? See Porter’s last principle).

Porter wrote an interesting essay about the experience, and about the wide abuse of the real Burke quote and what he’d learned.

At the end of the essay, he posed principles for quotations, two involving how we might hold the necessary skepticism that helps smoke out quotes that are bogus for one reason or another.

The other two, I confess, sometimes are difficult to follow.  One of my favorite statements from George Santayana, in the upper right corner of this blog, stands out of context (he wasn’t writing about history, really), nor have I read the entire book.  Porter proposes very high standards indeed: It’s not enough that the quote be accurately phrased and attributed appropriately to its creator; Porter wants the quote to be used in a similar context.  In his essay on the Burke quote, he notes Burke was talking of factions, but when Ronald Reagan used it, even getting the phrasing right, Reagan used it to talk about arming nations.  Porter suggests such a usage can lead us awry.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Porter is right, of course.

2014 is a federal election year.  Here in Texas we also have municipal elections in May — a lot of opportunities, to vote, a lot of campaigning, and a in that campaigning a stunning wealth of opportunities for people to misattribute quotes, or to invent whole new inappropriate contexts, twists, and diversions to accurate understanding.

We should heed Martin Porter better, perhaps.

Martin Porter’s four Principles for Quotations:

I therefore formulate and offer to the world the following Principles for Quotations, two for quoters and two for readers, which, if universally followed, would make an immense improvement to the reliability of the information available on the world wide web.

Principle 1 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.
Principle 2 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter has read it in the source.
Principle 3 (for quoters)
Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.
Principle 4 (for quoters)
Only quote from works that you have read.

* You knew that one was bogus. Right?

More:

Save

Save


%d bloggers like this: