The ten literary quotations below have passed into common parlance because they encapsulate human truths or sum up much-loved characters. The only problem is, in most cases, nobody actually wrote them…
1. Elementary, my dear Watson
There are plenty of ‘elementaries’ and a few ‘my dear Watsons’ across Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, but the phrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ never appears.
Really puts the time they got the Tube lines mixed up on Sherlock into perspective, doesn’t it?
2. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned
The line from William Congreve’s 1697 poem The Mourning Bride is: Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
It’s a shame to lose the first half of the couplet in the misquotation, but the addition of ‘hath’ lends a charming Olde Worlde feel.
3. I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it
This one is always attributed to Voltaire, but actually came from a 20th-century biography of him by the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
The author was summarising the philosopher’s attitude, but the first person pronoun led many to take it for a direct quote.
4. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble
The witches at the opening of Macbeth say “Double, double, toil and trouble”.
It’s surprising anyone still gets this wrong, considering the correct line was cemented in the cultural imagination by the 1993 Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen TV movie which took the quotation as its title.
5. Methinks the lady doth protest too much
The real line, spoken by Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, is “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
It’s a small error compared to the title of the Alanis Morrisette song inspired by the play: “Doth [sic] I Protest Too Much”.