Sometimes we see some scientific books (for example in the fields of computer science, game theory, ...) start their chapters (mostly the first chapter) with epigraphs from famous people, movies, an important event like famous conferences....

How the writers find these sentences? Since they are more or less related to the subject of the book's (or chapter) discussion, it seems that they can't be found accidentally by watching a movie during the writing process, or just the nice sentences be gathered during the time.

Is it practically possible to search on the internet for a suitable quote just at the time of preparing that specific writing/book/presentation? What should be searched for? Could anyone please give me some practical directions?

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    @Anonymous Physicist: Thanks for your useful link that taught me the correct expression of my mean "epigraphs". But the discussion there is mostly about epigraphs are good for thesis or not, my question is how the are founded to be used. – m123 Apr 6 at 10:56
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    "it seems that they can't be found accidentally by watching a movie during the writing process". Combinatorics and Graph Theory by Harris, Hirst and Mossinghoff has an epigraph for each section. The epigraph for the section on the Four Color Problem is "That does not sound too hard" by Princess Leia. This is one of the most pleasant book I read. The epigraphs are not the main reason for that, but it shows that the authors put a lot of themselves in the book. – Taladris Apr 7 at 4:09
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    To reinforce what others have said in answers: I found the epigraphs I used because I keep track of notable quotes in a notebook. But I also read a lot. And usually, I get an epiphany and the epigraph just comes to my mind, and I write down what epigraph I'd like to use for what topic/chapter. – Polygnome Apr 7 at 9:49

“By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. In fact, it is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.”

—George Bernard Shaw

“A good quote is like the handle of the bicycle which has the power to take you onto the beautiful path of life.”

—Vikrant Parsai

“When I need to find a good quote about a topic, I go to quotes.net and enter the term I’m interested in into the search box.”

—Dan Romik

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    "I often cite myself. It adds space to my citations." – Failed Scientist Apr 7 at 8:21
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    @FailedScientist Your comment is elevated from throwaway quip to greatness by your apt username. – Konrad Rudolph Apr 7 at 10:28
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    "I often comment on questions I know little about. It adds little to the conversation, but makes me feel important." – Barmar Apr 7 at 14:14

The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read. ― Mark Twain

Read a lot and remember. Write quotable quotes in a notebook if you feel you might be able to use them in the future.

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    We used to keep commonplaces, notebooks we'd jot down poignant quotes or thoughts or images, and spend time with them every now and again. But in the end it's as @JoelReyesNoche says: It all starts with reading. – A rural reader Apr 6 at 14:35
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    When I wrote my master thesis, I found a couple of nice quotes. I picked one for my thesis. From this day on, I collected all nice quotes I read in a file. When my PhD thesis was almost finished six years later, it was a pleasure to procrastinate and review all collected quotes and selecting some for the beginnings of my chapters. – usr1234567 Apr 7 at 8:47
  • Alternatively try to remember and then frantically google for hours w/o end for the precise wording since you ended up forgetting. But definitely a nice pastime, as @usr1234567 mentioned. It also makes for more fun when reading – ljrk Apr 7 at 11:42

...conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.-- Castiglione

I guess people just know these quotes, because they read widely. Maybe I'm a bit cynical, but part of the allure of epigraphs is to show off one's rounded liberal education. So I don't think people actually spend much time searching for them. At least if they did, they wouldn't admit. It would ruin their sprezzatura.

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    I wouldn't be so cynical: in some books, epigraphs are clearly chosen to provide some fun. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 6 at 11:55
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    @MassimoOrtolano yes, I like to believe that's why I used one in my PhD thesis. – henning -- reinstate Monica Apr 6 at 11:57
  • Could be. Possibly worthwhile for you to explore your personal response. – A rural reader Apr 6 at 17:18
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    @Aruralreader my point exactly. (On the other hand, I found the epigraph hilarious, but then again not appropriate enough to include in the resulting book.) – henning -- reinstate Monica Apr 6 at 17:52

One strategy is to identify key words in your topic that are distinctive but can have multiple meanings, and search for uses of these words in sources that are nontechnical or in a different technical area. An approach like this is described in Section 22 of a terrific document and is much easier now than in those pre-WWW days:

Don [Knuth] takes great pleasure in finding a really good aphorism with which to preface a piece of writing...

So how are we to find that wonderfully apposite quotation with which to preface our term paper? Serendipity, said Don. Live a full and varied life, read widely...

Sometimes one needs to go about the search more systematically... The first secret, he confided, is Bartlett. There are numerous dictionaries of quotations...

When Bartlett fails, we can try the OED. This incomparable dictionary lists every word along with contexts in which it has been used; very often it prints a memorable quotation...

Some of the best quotations are taken entirely out of context. The economist Leontief had something to say about (economic) output; Don quoted him in his chapter on (computer) output.

The class where this was discussed can be seen on video!


The author knows these quotes; has seen them, or heard them, and collected them over the years. It seems to be "cheating" to have someone else find pithy quotes for you!

  • Thanks but why "cheating"? or why "to have someone"? In this question I didn't asked for the sentences in my branch. Maybe this misunderstanding is because of my last sentence in the question was. In that sentence I just wanted to say that I want a possible answer, not just an answer. I suppose some of them can't be collected over the years. Because sometimes they are based on the topic of the presentation. Their numbers (their frequency) seems to be more than that just having this solution. Although this a a solution. – m123 Apr 6 at 10:45
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    @m123 it's "cheating" because quotes are usually something author personally associates with the content. It's not "here's a nice quote I found", it's "I really resonate with how [..] put it". It's nearly always something you have noted long ago as a nice quote. They are usually "on topic" because the author has read a lot on the topic. – Džuris Apr 7 at 2:36

I remember reading a wonderful book on computer algorithms called Algorithmics, in which each chapter was prefixed with a Biblical quote — from a translation by the author’s father. That was a neat way to do it. The quotes were relevant to the chapter, but in a way that was not relevant to the original use. “Let us talk of trees” is one I remember.

Beyond that, quotation dictionaries are a thing that exist. I have six on the shelf behind me. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: New Edition, and The Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations are all organized by author; while The Macmillan Dictionary of Relevant Quotations, Quotation Finder (Collins), and The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations are all by topic. I have yet to find a single online source of quotations that I would trust — Wiktionary is probably the best. Most of the others have most quotes in multiple variants of slightly different wording attributed to several different people.


This probably did mean the person was well read back in the day, but not so much today. Google "quotes about ___" where ___ is a generic word that pertains to your chapter and switch to image search. (Why image search? Because then you don't have to click into the results to see the quotes.)

For example, "quotes about trees":

From "famousquotes123.com":

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees. --William Blake

From "clickatree.com":

A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded and that no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance. --Wangari Maathai

Further searching of "Wangari Maathai tree quotes" turned up "brainyquote.com":

Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven't done a thing. --Wangari Maathai

OK, trees are obviously an easy topic... What about lists? "quotes about lists":

From Pinterest (don't at me):

People who want to appear clever rely on memory. People who want to get things done make lists. --Peter McWilliams

From "quotemaster.org":

There is only one thing that you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list. --Umberto Eco

The only difficulties here are formatting this post and choosing between the absolutely vast number of good quotes.

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    Yeah, that's a way to get quotes. But if you collect them over several years, and get some creativity because you frame them in a different context - then you have really nice epigraphs. – usr1234567 Apr 7 at 17:44

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