Churchill probably didn't say it either.

Photographer: Central Press/Getty Images

Great Quote. A Little Too Great.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. ~ Mark Twain

I got that quote from Jon Winokur's Advice to Writers page. It is indeed great advice for writers. However, I'm pretty sure that it was not written or said by Mark Twain.

Longtime readers know that I have a minor interest in investigating fake quotes and documents, and a decent spidey sense for catching them. (Indeed, one of my most popular posts was on a fake Martin Luther King quote that went viral right after we got Osama bin Laden.) So what sets off the spidey sense?

Hard to say, actually. Part of it comes from familiarity. It's no accident that the fakes I've blogged about have involved authors, or author types, that I've spent a good bit of time reading: right-wing climate change skeptics, Martin Luther King, Karl Marx and, now, Mark Twain. The last three I spent a lot of time reading in college.

This quote just doesn't feel like Twain, who was anything but a plodding, methodical person. He was mercurial, possibly manic depressive, and deeply obsessed with the building blocks of his craft -- but with the words, vocabulary and character, not with introspective disquisitions on finding your inner writer. The quote lacks anything like Twain's vivid style; it reads like a slightly-too-earnest chapter opener from a business book, not the dashing, acerbic Mark Twain. Its core idea is drawn from the industrial process revolution that was only really getting going when Mark Twain died in 1910. The sentences are short and straight-forward, rather than the complex, compound structures that Victorians favored. Almost everything that could be wrong with it, is.

So I went to Ngrams, Google's neat tool for looking at changing patterns of word use over time. Here's what turns up for "manageable":

It's not impossible that Twain would have used this word. But it's declining towards its lowest ebb over the course of his writing career. 

But what were people finding manageable during Twain's era? Mostly not "tasks":

This is management-speak that drew from that same industrial process literature. It took off in the 1960s.  As did "complex tasks":

Of course, Mark Twain was a forward-thinking man in many ways. Perhaps he prefigured the management literature of the 1960s by almost a hundred years. So the next step is to go to the tape: my Kindle edition "Complete Works of Mark Twain," which includes his letters and speeches and is a bargain for only $1.99. Neither this phrase, nor standout smaller components, show up.

But perhaps my "Complete Mark Twain" wasn't so complete; that often happens, sadly. So I looked at my "Complete Letters" and "Complete Speeches". Nothing. Then I went to a different "Complete Works of Mark Twain" with letters, speeches, etc. on Google Books. Nothing. The complete interviews of Mark Twain, also on Google Books, yields only one result for "tasks," and it's nothing like this quotation. I dove pretty far down the Google pages for this quote, and found it only on quotation websites, and business books that probably took it off the quotation websites. That's why I'm pretty sure this is not from Mark Twain. 

You may ask: Does this fake matter? Fair enough. Of course it isn't of cosmic importance whether we misattribute fake quotations. This happens all the time; I myself have been guilty of peddling a quote that I genuinely believed to come from Woody Allen. But I think it is important to see how these quotes get created, and why they catch on, because that tells us something about ourselves.

Fake quotes get created in many ways. There are deliberate frauds and satires, which would include the "bang the drums of war" quote allegedly from Julius Caesar and Karl Marx's apparently prescient ruminations on the perils of consumer debt. Both categories tend to be long quotes, replete with anachronistic usage and detail that give them away. They read as if they were written from the CNN green room, rather than an entirely different time and place. And they don't seem to have had any existence on the Internet before the crises to which they so apply so aptly.

Then there are mangled quotes. That was the case with the MLK quote I caught. In the process of being retransmitted, stuff gets accidentally omitted, or appended, producing a brand new quotation from someone who's been dead for many years.

Finally, there's simple misattribution, as I did with the probably-not-Woody Allen quote, and many, many people have done with many others. As I once joked to a friend: "In the future, all funny things will be said by Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain." (I'm pretty sure it was me who said that. Yes. Definitely me.) When you have a funny quote you want to repeat, it's pretty safe to type one of their names at the end, because even if they didn't say it, chances are, it's already been misattributed to them more than once. Hey, you get plausible deniability!

It all makes a person wonder why fake quotes are so common. Partly because, well, people make mistakes. But also because in the battle for mindshare, fake quotes are often better than the things famous people actually said. We want to think that the great minds of the past can speak to our problems today -- and of course, they can. But fake quotes actually often speak much better than real ones. They are either engineered to be touchingly on point and timely, or they are heir to a real quote, evolved to be more congenial, well-phrased and morally admirable. It's hard for the real stuff to compete.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net