27th February 2013
Mostly because not every author is the best expressor of a particular thought, even though the originator thereof. Look at the third line of Spenser’s THE FAERIE QUEEN and tell me that it doesn’t read better as ‘Wherein deep dints of old wounds did remain’ than the original ‘Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine’. Or Pope: ‘Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.’ is just not as good as ‘Be not the first by whom the new is tried, Nor yet the last to cast the old aside.’
Have you noticed how incorrect quotes often just sound right—sometimes, more right than actual quotations? There’s a reason for that. Our brains really like fluency, or the experience of cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive strain) in taking in and retrieving information. The more fluent the experience of reading a quote—or the easier it is to grasp, the smoother it sounds, the more readily it comes to mind—the less likely we are to question the actual quotation. Those right-sounding misquotes are just taking that tendency to the next step: cleaning up, so to speak, quotations so that they are more mellifluous, more all-around quotable, easier to store and recall at a later point. We might not even be misquoting on purpose, but once we do, the result tends to be catchier than the original.