How to Use English Quotations Intelligently in Conversation
‘Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment,’ said a woman - looking enigmatically at a group of people staring at her, waiting for her to say something - at a party full of tinkling glasses and jewelry, along with accents.
She later attributed her words to Benjamin Franklin.
Her words – or rather, her quoting – set the stage for her. People admired her wit, poise, presence of mind, and polish; and for the rest of the evening, even her silence was regarded more meaningful than most of the chatter that was heard – or not paid attention to.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic effect of using quotations effectively, intelligently and impactfully.
Let us now look at imbibing this fine art; shall we?
As we all know, ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’ – William Shakespeare had said. These words, immensely meaningful as they are, can mean some more to us; in the sense that we can look at them this way: the ones who are ‘born great’ are the great thinkers and writers who articulate their lofty thoughts and ideas beautifully for us to realise and enjoy. ‘Made great’ could be the ones who can walk upon the same path and try to attain the same level of greatness by trying to express themselves just as wonderfully, and succeeding, too. Some others can have ‘greatness thrust upon them’ by quoting great words, and words of the Greats, intelligently and appropriately; so that people around them begin to believe they are ‘great’, too!
Quote Intelligently and Appropriately
The key words here are ‘Intelligently’ and ‘Appropriately’. We should never, ever quote words that we do not understand. For we would never know what they would convey to our listeners. They might convey meanings we had never imagined or intended them to, thereby creating confusion and misunderstandings.
In order to quote intelligently and appropriately, we need to:
- Understand the language and the quote. With the help of a teacher, friend, guidebook, internet… Any source of knowledge we can trust.
- Follow experience. If we see a distinguished personality saying the same words at a similar gathering, and being greatly appreciated for the same, we can consider the words suitable for repetition in a similar situation – provided we remember the exact words, and know how to use them in contexts very similar to the one where we had heard them first.
- Know exactly where and how the quote is best used. For example, it would hardly be a good idea to repeat Shakespeare’s words ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’ at your office party; right?
Know whose quote it is that you are using
- It is our basic duty, responsibility and even common courtesy to know whose words we are borrowing, to express ourselves.
- We need to know the source of our favourite quotes so that we can check to see if the words that we wish to use are the exact ones said / written by him / her.
- In case someone asks us whose words we have repeated, we need to know and mention the source.
- We need to know the source of the quote, to gain access to more beautiful quotes from him / her.
Do not misquote
Our teachers would tell us it can be looked upon as very rude and irresponsible to misquote anyone. For example, many people say ‘All that glitters is not gold’ is a line by Shakespeare; when, as per what we had been taught in school, it is actually not the exact words he had written. His words were: ‘All that GLISTERS is not gold’ – we had been told that ‘glisters’ had been incorrectly changed to ‘glitters’; and even our text book contained the word ‘glisters’ and NOT ‘glitters’!
It can be very embarrassing if you misquote, and someone immediately corrects you, reciting the original, correct version.
A misquote can even alter the total meaning of the words and make your words seem meaningless and misplaced.
We got no marks in class, if we misquoted from books, plays or poems.
A misquote reveals you do not know your quotes well enough to present them before others.
It could mean:
- You do not use your own mind and often borrow words and expressions -- without even bothering to get them correct, first!
- You do not care enough to check the sources of the words you use.
- You do not read often or well enough to know words right.
- You have a careless memory and tongue.
None of these impressions that people might develop of you would do you or your image any good; so it is best to avoid misquoting.
Know more about the quote
For example, you have used the words ‘I don’t believe really refined people notice such things’ before a friend, perhaps, who has been laughing at your chipped nail-colour; and she has been staring at your wonderful usage of words – but, would the impact have not been much, much more, had you said, instead: “Well, as Catherine Petkoff comments in Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’, ‘I don’t believe really refined people notice such things’!”
Now THAT would show that not only do you know the right quote to use, but you are also well aware of its original source, and author. In other words, you are equipped with complete knowledge. How enviable is that!
When I was a student, my teachers taught us to give all details while quoting:
- The exact words with the exact punctuation used
- Who said the words, to whom, when, where and why
- In which story / play / poem do the words appear thus ( if it is a play, to mention the Act and Scene where these words are spoken; in case of a poem, the Stanza )
- The title of the story / play / poem from which the words have been quoted, along with the full name of the author / writer / poet.
This rule could be adhered to almost anywhere – even at a party where you would like to quote a great work!
For example, you could sigh philosophically, and say, “If I could borrow Scarlett’s words from Margaret Mitchell’s classic ‘Gone With The Wind’ – to respond to your invitation to the theatre tomorrow, I would say, ‘After all… tomorrow is another day’!”
Or, to say something different in response to someone’s “Good morning!” you could try, “Ah! ‘The morning comes to consciousness’! First line, Stanza II of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ – what a poem!” Refreshing, erudite, impressive observation that would pleasantly surprise anyone, and make the very usual ‘Good morning’ truly memorable.
Do not overdo
Please make sure you do not sound like a mobile book of quotations – even if people around you look clearly impressed by your expertise. Two to three quotes should seem fine for a period of three to four hours; if the gaps are filled by mysterious silence, the results could be even better. Your quotes would remain in the minds of the people around you, and you could, in the meanwhile, think up or note more quotes, or simply remain silent so as to avoid saying anything that does not match the grandness of the quote/s just recited.
Practise quoting with style and confidence, so that when you repeat the words before a number of listeners, they flow off your tongue simply, easily, fluidly. In case you need someone to guide you in your speech and style, approach a teacher, friend, or even an English fluency app! Make sure you get enough knowledge, updating, upgrading and regular practice, and soon you can turn into the life of any occasion or gathering – with your well-chosen, well-applied quotes.
If I may quote myself to wish you all the best: Proceed and Succeed.
About Editorial Team
Ritaja Mukherjee has studied English Literature up to the PG Level and been the Assistant Editor of a renowned magazine related to movies. She has also been a teacher of the English Language, Literature, and Communicative English.