I'm not sure exactly how to ask this question in a vacuum so I'll give an example first:

Many people are familiar with the Mitch Hedberg joke about an escalator being "temporarily stairs" rather than "broken". You may be in a group of friends that knows his material, so if you come across a broken escalator, someone might make the joke or reference it in some way.

In normal conversation there's no attribution. You'd say "oh look, temporarily stairs", not "well, as Mitch Hedberg said, ...". Conversation is very informal.

So the question then is, how would you do something like this in fictional dialogue, keeping to the spirit of this type of casual conversation without coming across as if you're ripping someone off?

2 Answers 2


I'd do it exactly as you've demonstrated, informal without inline attribution. You can then make mention of it in some form of bibliography at the end if you wish, but remember that commonly known phrases don't require attribution, depending on context/audience. It's also possible to include mention of the reference in an "Acknowledgments" section.

  • 4
    +1. If it's commonly-known enough to be recognized, and its primary value is that it'll be recognized, then it doesn't need attribution. Just be aware not to assume a reference is well-known or immediately recognizable without checking it out.
    – Standback
    Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 8:19
  • 1
    ... as long as you're not using a snatch of lyrics from a song. Your publisher will insist that you get permission for every song you quote, and you'll have to pay whatever the owner of the song copyright wants. (There are no compulsory licenses for lyrics, either.)
    – kindall
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 16:35

I found a good way to do that is to have a second character who doesn't know about it and have the first character explain. otherwise, i think it's ok to just use it like it's a part of a normal conversation.

  • not for pop culture.
    – hildred
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 6:05

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