It seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? We can give our own words sparkle, heft, and melody by using someone else’s. The long history of the art of quotation—shortly after Adam said the first words, somebody quoted him—amply proves its power.
“Expression would be insufferably bleak,” says Arthur Plotnik in The Elements of Expression, “without the charms and treasures of utterances past.”
“Borrowed words connect us to one another, across periods, across cultures. They affirm the universality of human thought and emotion. And for ‘one brief shining moment’ (Camelot) at a time, they make us look good.”
But just as we must choose our own words with care, we should be as careful choosing the words of others.
For example, a familiar quotation can add an authoritative voice to an argument you may be advancing. On the other hand, it may be so familiar that that it has drifted into cliché. Mr. Shakespeare has given us epigrams like “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and “…to thine own self be true…,” but perhaps they’re getting a bit run-down. They are no less true, but they’ve lost some of their impact because we’ve heard them so often. Our brains are wired to notice the unfamiliar, the out of the ordinary. Give your audience something fresh and they’ll repay you with their attention.
Spend a bit of time enjoying the words of others. There are plenty of quotation books and websites available; do a bit of random browsing to get a feel for the breadth of the ideas they capture. And start collecting them yourself. When you read or hear something that expresses an idea with wit and clarity, write it down, store it away. I collect quotations from books, conversations, and even product packaging. (For example, “All work and no play should be illegal” came from a beverage container. That twist at the end helps freshen an otherwise well-worn proverb.)
Start including a few in your work. Choose them carefully, use them sparingly. Give proper attribution, and quote accurately.
“A fine quotation is a diamond on the finger of a man of wit, and a pebble in the hand of a fool. “ –Joseph Roux
Don’t be afraid to borrow the words of others to make your point.