Quoting out of context

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An out of context quotation is a kind of discrediting attack which appears to use a person's own words against him, but is deceptive because the apparent meaning of the quoted words—even though they are accurately quoted—is different from the meaning of the longer passage from which the words were taken. To illustrate:

One Gilson Gardner wrote:

"It is silly to say that the moon is made of green cheese."[1]

One could quote this out of context as:

"...the moon is made of green cheese."—Gilson Gardner

These are certainly Gilson Gardner's exact words, and just as certainly they distort Gilson Gardner's intended meaning.

Real examples almost as extreme as this can be found in movie and book advertisements, which find ingenious ways of extracting seemingly positive snippets from overwhelmingly negative reviews. For example, an advertisement for the film Be Cool quoted:

"...Travolta is as smooth as ever..." —Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

The actual review said:

"[John Travolta's character Chili] Palmer is back in 'Be Cool,' and although Travolta is as smooth as ever, the picture is a bust, a grimly unfunny comedy with no connection to reality, and worst of all, running on and on for two dismal hours."[2]

Here is a subtle example.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty" wrote the Romantic poet John Keats in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." That famous citation, which expresses 19th-century Romanticism's trust in feeling over reason, is pertinent in the case of Anne Carson's newest volume...[3]

What can be possibly be misleading in this reviewer's quotation of what is probably the most famous line Keats ever wrote? The missing context here is an additional set of quotation marks. The actual closing lines of the poem are:

    When old age shall this generation waste,
      Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
    Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st
  'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

It is not the narrative voice of the poem that says "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." It is the urn that metaphorically says this to the narrator. The narrator is certainly moved by the perceived message of the urn, but it is by no means clear that the narrator fully agrees. What the poem means—and what Keats himself believed, which of course is not necessarily the same thing—can be debated, but "Keats wrote 'truth is beauty, beauty truth'" distorts by oversimplifying.

Sometimes, even a subtle change in wording can radically change what the speaker meant to say. For example, Charles E. Wilson, president of General Motors from 1941 to 1953, is often slightly misquoted as having said

"What's good for General Motors is good for the country."

The context was his confirmation hearing before the Senate for his appointment as Secretary of Defense. He was asked whether, as a government official, he would be capable of making a decision that would adversely affect General Motors. What he said in full was:

"Yes, sir, I could. I cannot conceive of any because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa."[4]

It's not totally unfair to translate the "vice versa" into "What's good for General Motors is good for the country," but chopping off the "for years I thought" and "what was good for the country was good for General Motors" is; it transforms a forthright statement into a piece of fatuous arrogance.

A blatant example involved columnist Alex Beam writing in the Boston Globe regarding Conservapedia:[5]

Their entry on kangaroos, for instance, says that, "like all modern animals . . . kangaroos are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood."

By quoting this out of context, Beam gave the impression that Conservapedia was claiming this as the truth. The actual truth, however, is that the quoted text was immediately preceded by "According to the origins theory model used by creation scientists...".[6]


  1. Gardner, Gilson (1907) "Why is a Joke Funny?" Putnam's Magazine, p. 56
  2. The Blurb Racket, Gelf Magazine
  3. Berstein, Richard (2001), "Books of the Times: Beauty is Truth, and Sometimes Betrayal," February 14, 2001, p. E1
  4. Keyes, Ralph (1992): Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations,, p. 8
  5. Beam, Alex, Just the facts -- and they're always right, Boston Globe, 4th June 2007.
  6. See also Conservapedia:Alex Beam's column about Conservapedia.