Stop Misquoting Leonard Cohen and Ernest Hemingway. Start Listening and Reading.

The world breaks every one… or does it?

Consider the misquote. It lies in that same realm as citing fake news or reading only the headline. Misquoting is certainly nothing new, but the internet allows a fake quote to be retweeted a thousand times before the truth has even clicked send.

“Live. Laugh. Love”

Consider the following list of quotes, provided by Google when one searches for ernest hemingway quotes:

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-12-21-40-pmI won’t catalogue all of these, but let’s say that they range from accurate to context-free to paraphrased to nonsense.

For example, the first one in the list, when freed of context, seems like an inspiring tattoo-friendly Pinterest quote, but when taken in full context is somewhat more dour: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” The one in Google also adds commas and changes “many” to “some”/

The seventh is a misquote of a line he said during a famous article by Dorothy Parker in The New Yorker, while the last one on the list sounds like the social media status update of a moody teen.

Why do we misquote?

What is it about the internet and misquoting? What drives one to repeat something that someone else said without bothering to make sure that person said it?  Why would you put something on your Facebook wall, why tweet it, why make it into a cute photo for Instagram without confirming that, yes, it’s a real quote?

Of course, it’s not only social media. The U. S. Postal Service misquoted Maya Angelou on a stamp. Megan Fox has a Shakespeare misquote inked on her skin. The Big Short opens with something Mark Twain never said. The list goes on and on.

I think people misquote for two reasons, always working together: a) they think something sounds smart, cool, or profound, and b) they’re lazy or careless. There is no reason to misquote something or someone unless you just really don’t care enough to try, or don’t care enough to be accurate.

What Leonard Cohen and Ernest Hemingway never said.

Sometimes these misquotes go viral, like when the world thought that Martin Luther King, Jr wasn’t happy about Bin Laden’s death. Other times, these misquotes are quiet pieces of confusion that float around the internet, appearing in Reddit threads or Goodreads pages.

For me, there is one example that stands above all and infuriates me, because it’s the monstrous mutation of two real quotes, two beautiful quotes:

“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” 

I can’t remember where I first saw this, and whether it was attributed to Cohen or Hemingway, but I immediately knew it was nonsense because I recognized the first sentence as the lost child of a Hemingway quote, and the second half as a piece of a Leonard Cohen lyric.

Of course, here’s the real Cohen, from “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

-Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

And the real Hemingway “the world breaks everyone” quote, from A Farewell to Arms, which goes:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

– Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Lucky for us, I’m not the only person who cares about this. Google we are all broken thats how the light gets in and you’ll find the first link is to a Quote Investigator article about this misquote and its origin, including how the two quotes rose and converged. (And for those of you who like the real quote, here’s an incredible use of Game of Thrones and the world breaks every one quote.)

But here’s what bothers me, seeing this nonsense quote getting bandied about while the truth is in position one of Google: This means that, these days, every time someone shares this particular misquote, they have not bothered to check its veracity on even the laziest level.

Oh, but does it matter, you ask? How many people are repeating this bastardized version of Cohen’s Anthem mashed up with Hemingway’s “the world will kill you too” quote?

Let’s take a look:

  • The misquote, attributed to Hemingway, has 273 likes on Goodreads.
  • The misquote, attributed to Hemingway, got 528 upvotes on the quotes subreddit.
  • Someone put it on a mug, giving credit, again, to Ernest.
  • Glenn Beck tweeted it, attributing it first to no one and second to Hemingway.
  • You can look it up on a search engine to see all the blogs that have written inspirational schlock on this misquote.
  • And then here is just a sample of all the Pinterest-friendly images and greeting cards that display it:
Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 5.16.00 PM.png

So what are we to do about misquotes?

I have a very simple solution. It’s the same solution to beating fake news: slow down.

If you think you really like a song lyric, try to find the song that it’s from. Listen to it.

If you think you really like a quote by a famous author, read a book by that author.

If you read a crazy news article, look at who wrote the article, and where you are reading it.

We were once taught not to trust strangers on the internet. Now strangers on the internet are repeating stolen jokes, making up quotes, and telling you how to vote.

Stop living this way. Make the smallest bit of effort. Be your own person. Research. Take pride in the words you repeat, and give the respect to attribute them accurately.

Don’t do this.

And don’t repeat a Mark Twain quote unless you read it in a Mark Twain book, because otherwise it’s probably bullshit.

“I mean,” Ernest Hemingway said, “grace under pressure.”

At the beginning of this, I mentioned that “courage is grace under pressure” is inaccurate.

Here is its accurate origin, from Dorothy Parker’s 1929 article about Hemingway:

That brings me to the point which I have been trying to reach all this time: Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage–his phrase that, it seems to me, makes Barrie’s “Courage is immortality” sound like one of the more treble trilling of Tinker Bell. Mr. Hemingway did not use the term “courage.” Ever the euphemist, he referred to the quality as “guts,” and he was attributing its possession to an absent friend.

“Now just a minute,” somebody said, for it was one of those argumentative evenings. “Listen. Look here a minute. Exactly what do you mean by ‘guts’?”

“I mean,” Ernest Hemingway said, “grace under pressure.”

That grace is his. The pressure, I suppose, comes in, gratis, under the heading of the Artist’s Reward.

-Dorothy Parker, The New Yorker

Is it too difficult to read such a long excerpt? Does it not make a good ankle tattoo? Is it too long to tweet?

Arguably the last man to rock a fedora with grace.

There are so many good books to read in this world and so much good music to listen to. There are so many people to meet, things to see, things to do. Think of how much better the world could be if we slowed down and started listening to one another. Think of how much better things would be if no one misquoted Leonard Cohen and everyone listened to his music. If

The choice is yours. Are you going to be part of the problem? Or are you going to start checking the accuracy of quotes before you repeat them?

And no, Hemingway also never said that thing about baby shoes being for sale. Look it up.

Enjoy this article? Check out Fan Theories from D. F. Lovett or The Moonborn in e-book or paperback.


  1. Thank You!!!! I HATE when people attribute quotes to the wrong people. Or even worse don’t give anyone any credit at all- basically implying that they wrote it themselves. There’s really no reason why people cannot give credit to the real author.

  2. I read the “quote” on Instagram today. By Cohen. I listened to the song and now I wanted to share it as well. I found the other one by Hemingway and I was searching which book does it come from. And I found this article. Thank you!

  3. Double-check your spelling on A Farewell to Arms— you left out an “e” once.
    Thanks for your message, I’m glad when people want the truth in things.

  4. Thank you for your article. I have given up trying to correct my wife who continually uses misquotes that were supposedly said or written by Abraham Lincoln or the Buddah.

  5. Great article. If others that read it are intrigued enough to read Hemingway or listen to Cohen then you will have performed a great service.

  6. Thank you for the article, it’s really helpful! Could you help me with this quote?
    “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.”
    I see this one everywhere on the internet, and I’m really curious: is it real or another misquote? Does it really come from “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway”?

    1. Hi Flora – I dug around and can’t find anyone else who has attempted to verify this one. “Letters of Ernest Hemingway” is pretty vague, and could easily have been tacked onto this quote when an actual source couldn’t be found (or didn’t exist.)

      However, I’ve believed that quotes were fake before that turned out to be legitimate, so I don’t want to say it’s definitely a misquote without doing further research. The one other reason I suspect it might be a misquote is because it seems to be a mash-up of some of his other famous passages. I also question whether Hemingway would’ve used a semi-colon or if he would have opened a sentence with the world “ironically.”

      So I’m leaning toward no, but there’s an outside chance it is real and in a collection of letters out there somewhere.

  7. I understand the problem with misquoting, but I happen to appreciate this bastardization of the Hemingway quote: “Life breaks everyone, and afterward some are stronger at the broken places.” To me (a person who perceives himself as having been broken–in combat and in love, to name a couple of ways), there is beauty and truth in that misquote. So what is the solution? To simply abandon the thought? To attribute it to myself? To attribute it by saying something like, “misquoted from Hemingway?” I don’t think the solution is to simply abandon the thought, or to be denied the ability to share it. In a sense I have taken Hemingway’s idea, as expressed in his original quote, and made it personal to me. There should be a way for me to legitimately think the thought and share it without being derided as either a plagiarist or a misquoter of Hemingway.

    Maybe Hemingway wouldn’t be as upset as you seem to be about a reader modifying his ideas to make them personal.

    1. Hi Jake, thanks for reading and commenting!

      I think there is middle ground here. The original line of “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places” is not terribly different from the varied version you like. I agree that you can’t abandon the thought, especially if it’s one you find strength in.

      The most important thing here, in my opinion, is that you know the distinction between the original quote and the quote you have a personal connection to. If you were to tattoo the misquote on your body or hang a plaque of it on your wall, you wouldn’t be doing so out of ignorance, but out of intention.

      I can’t say what Hemingway would think about people misquoting him. But like most writers, he’d probably appreciate people like you who took the time to read his work and have thoughtful conversations about it.

      Thanks again for your comment! It’s a good one.

  8. I was googling Hemingway quotes tonight because I find him especially intriguing. I saw the one about we are all broken that’s how the light gets in. Myself being far from a literary brain thought wow that does not sound like Hemingway. I looked into it and came across this article. I absolutely loved every word of it!!! Social media has really made it so easy for people to remain ignorant and oblivious. No one fact checks anything “it was on Facebook so it must be factual”. So yes there are others like you that it matters to. Thank you!!!

  9. I bet you’re fun at parties zzzzz

    So no-one has said it before? So if I say it it’s my quote right?

    We are all broken— that’s how the light gets in.

    There you go. My quote. Now go quote me ya big baby

    1. Kingdingaling you may want to update Wikipedia.

      Thing is that Cohen has said “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” so, yours sounds a bit like his, you know… Ok – second best – anyway, your choice…

      The title of this article goes “Start listening and reading”… Just as a reminder.

  10. I keep seeing misquotes from Presidents that are created obviously to fuel islamaphobia and racism, but hidden within this “quote” from 1800s so no one sees the fake quotes for what they are and just keep sharing sharing sharing… thanks for the article. It’s a relief to know others feel this way.

  11. It’s just a bunch of inspiring words, who cares about who said them first?

    I find it quite ridiculous that you compare the impact of inspirational misquotes to fake news. Fake news can easily have a country plummet into utter chaos, I doubt the same is true for the difference between cracks making you stronger or letting light in that makes you stronger…

    If the creator of a quote is alive and cares about it, he/she can make an effort to clear it up (as some people who got misquoted have done!), if they are dead they can’t care anymore anyways.

    In the end, what matters is that the message enriched someone’s life, no matter if it was a famous author, a famous singer, or just “random internet person #8473” who created it.

    I gather quotes I like from anywhere, be it Goodreads, random forum signatures on the internet or T-Shirt prints of strangers I pass by. And I’ve always made it a habit to not write down who supposedly or rightfully said them, because it doesn’t matter. If anything, people will try to use a big and famous name to sway someone’s opinion, so let’s just drop the names in general. Focusing too much on the people instead of their works tends to just lead to less pretty parts of their lives that they wouldn’t want to be remembered for anyway.

    1. I disagree with everything you commented. Instead of rebutting, I’ll just provide a few relevant quotes:

      “Everyone is at least a little bit broken. But that’s okay because it makes us stronger.” – John McCain

      “A wise man knows not to believe something before verifying its veracity.” – Buddha

      “There’s a crack in everything. It’s what makes us whole.” -Obama

      “The opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creativity.” – Donald Trump

      “Sometimes I wish the internet had never been invented.” – Jane Austen

      1. I cannot believe that Donald Trump said that. It’s too creative. And I do not mean that to be only sarcasm.

  12. well done on de-bunking this and other trite bunkum. As a reader and fan of Ernest Hemingway and a fan and student of the sheer depth of Leonard Cohen’s writing its a matter of considerable relief to find well-meaning intelligent people putting right the wrongs of the lady interneterati.
    As a wise man once said, “You can’t believe EVERYTHING you read on the internet” (Abe Lincoln, Gettysburg, 1863)

  13. Thanks, this changes everything! I’ve been making those silly cards with quotes (no interest in Pinterest) without ever challenging the authenticity. I was looking for the origin of “how the light gets in” and your article shed a huge amount of light on my new project! Also, as boomer, very fond of Leonard Cohen, wonderful to learn about his contribution to this quote. Now is the time to keep it real!

  14. Well Rumi said wrote something very similar about 500 years before either of these two. There expressing an all expressing the similar I insight into the nature of the human experience. I would have thought a discussion as to the truth, meaning and implication If this insight would be more worthwhile than pedantically splitting hairs of the provenance. Guess what: 80% of famous quotations are misappropriated but I think find your focus on the entomology kinda misses the point. There may be something is faking why these have become misremember cultural memes / artifices in the first place?

  15. I just watched the first episode of Little Voice the quote “We are all Broken. That is how the light gets in” was made and the person attributes it to Hemingway or maybe Cohen. This made me of course want to google it to make sure. Thank you for clarifying this for me, and I do agree Slow down, research and read a book – great advice.

  16. All I did was google Who coined the phrase “through the cracks the light will shine”….couldn’t quite recall where I heard it from….but the results of my search blew me away….didn’t know so much controversy was surrounded by this quote that I still really don’t know who said it…lol…oh well the journey continues…good day all😁

  17. This topic bothers me to no end. I check every source because if a quote does not even list the book, poem or speech from which it came, it’s most likely inaccurate. Thank you for this.

  18. Thank you for this! I vaguely remembered a supposed quote and I always research to give proper credit. I know the truth on this and will quote Cohen. I have listened to his music, but now I will listen to the. “Anthem”. I appreciate your insight.

  19. I agree with Eco’s comment above and was surprised at the hair splitting. Both Cohen and Hemmingway only repeat Rumi’s words… and who knows, maybe Rumi’s teacher shared that wisdom with him!

    And while you disagree, Sera’s comment has some value as “wisdom” transcends time and cultures. Consider the evolution of language, societies and even religions. When people get together there is always an exchange of ideas.

    I agree we need to slow down. I value the energy it takes to read and learn for ourselves, but I disagree with your comparison between faulty quote credits and purposeful misdirection.

  20. Hello and thank-you, There are supposedly quotes by Albert Einstein that are in question, curious if you have researched and found some quotes that didn’t belong to Albert Einstein?

    1. I haven’t, but I don’t really think of myself as an expert quote researcher compared to many others out there. This Hemingway/Cohen mashup is a particular pet peeve of mine but I think there are others who really do the leg work. Check out (who I cite above) as that website does a great job digging into Einstein misquotes.

  21. HA! My son was assigned this “quote” to do a presentation on how it fits the ‘growth mindset’. Lucky for me he loves to research stuff and did his presentation on how it helped his growth mindset by not taking what you are told at face value.

  22. Little to add to the praise already expressed in the comments above, expect to add my vote. One note: in the final paragraph of Dorothy Parker’s NYer profile quoted here, surely she must have meant, “That grace [not ‘race’] is his. The pressure, I suppose, comes in, gratis, under the heading of the Artist’s Reward.”

    1. Good catch! I’ve corrected the typo 🙂

      Can’t believe you’re the first to catch it!

  23. I am currently in an argument with a fellow reader on a FB Louise Penny book club. The title of one of her books is How The Light Gets In. In the introduction she credits Cohen for giving her the right to use the Anthem lyric for free, then misquoted it in the book. The lyric, as written by Cohen, is: “There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in” (sic) Cohen uses very little punctuation, some commas and contractions but I don’t believe there is a single period. Penny misquoted it thusly: There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Maybe it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of literature but I think that I if one of Canada’s great artists and national treasures gives you the rights to quote from his lyrics then it is sloppy and disingenuous to change it.

      1. Ultimately I had a very civilized discussion with the other poster leading me to acknowledge that a) Penny asked for and was given rights to the quote, b) she thanks him many times over several books, and c) the change she made to the lyric would not have made sense as written however it is true to the meaning Cohen intended and approved. Ultimately my complaint is that as a result a meme has surfaced that is a deliberate misquote. It’s my own little corner of the internet that I intend to keep sacred.

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