Phillip Corbett, the New York Times grammarian, warns against the misuse of Shakespeare by writers. In his article titled Mangled Shakespeare, Corbett discusses Hamlet’s oft-misunderstood phrase “it is a custom more honor’d in the breach than the observance
Everyone loves to quote Shakespeare. “To be or not to be” may be the weariest of clichés, but no one will give it the rest it has earned.
Still, if we can’t help ourselves, we should at least make sure we’re quoting correctly, and that the allusion means what we think it means. Two popular and much-mangled Shakespearean allusions spring from a single passage in “Hamlet” (Act 1, scene iv), where Hamlet expresses disgust with the custom of drunken revelry practiced by his uncle Claudius:
But to my mind, though I am native here And to the manner born, it is a custom More honor’d in the breach than the observance.
As The Times’s stylebook says and we’ve noted before, one of these lines is frequently rendered as “to the manor born,” on the mistaken assumption that it refers to an aristocratic home. (That error may have been abetted by the British television series whose title played on the phrase.) In fact, Hamlet says “manner,” meaning custom or fashion.
We have mostly steered clear of that pitfall lately. But we continue to struggle with “honor’d in the breach.” A couple of recent missteps, with an explanation below:
In late November, Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly tried to check such behavior. But his orders — to treat the press with respect — often appear honored in the breach.
The principle of “shared governance” is the least well understood aspect of academic freedom, and as a result, it is honored chiefly in the breach.
Hamlet means that it is more honorable to breach, or violate, the custom of carousing than to observe it. So the phrase is properly applied to a bad custom or rule that should be ignored. Instead, we and others frequently use it in almost the opposite sense, referring to a good custom that, unfortunately, is often breached. As the stylebook says:
more honored in the breach. The passage more honored in the breach than the observance, from “Hamlet,” refers to a custom that is more honorably ignored than followed — not one that is more often ignored.
The best advice I can give on using Shakespearean quotes in your writing is to do a little research before you publish. Often what you assume is the correct quotation or usage is wrong. I stumbled into the trap the other day when I tweeted.
Present dangers are less than horrible imaginings.
One of my Shakespeare aficionado friends immediately, and rightly, rebuked me for the mistake. The correct quote is,
Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.
I was certain that I knew the quote verbatim. And I was wrong. It would have taken me less than a minute to look it up and that is what I should have done.