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Why Do We Quote?

Ruth Finnegan


Texte intégral

A confusion of quoting terms

A confusion of quoting terms

Design © Mark Cain

1Until this book somehow crept under my guard I hadnt thought I was much interested in quoting or quotation: something to be deployed with care in some settings, no doubt, but not a thing to be investigated. Certainly I had learned to use quote marks at school and later to wield quotations in academic writing, and had become aware of copyright obligations and the current concerns about plagiarism and about unauthorised words floating free on the web. I was also vaguely aware that words and voices from elsewhere ran through what I said, I read them in books, recognised them in formal speeches, heard them in conversation. But I had just come to accept this as part of common practice, not anything to be really noticed, far less to arouse particular curiosity

2As I thought about it, I realised how little I knew about quoting and quotation. What does it mean, this strange human propensity to repeat chunks of text from elsewhere and to echo others voices? How does it work and where did it come from? Does it matter? Why, anyway, do we quote?

3I started by reflecting more carefully on my own experience and was startled by how quoting permeated my world. And then I wondered how others were using, or not using, quotation both nearby and in far away times and places. On some aspects I found a vast and fascinating literature. But there seemed no single account that directly tackled my questions about just what quotation and quoting were, how we had got to where we now are, and how in practice these had been used and conceptualised. This led me to considering how people here and now actually use quotation (in practice, that is, not just according to the grammar books) and also, going on from that, whether we might understand these present practices better by exploring something of their background and whether the problems currently causing concern belong just to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, or perhaps have longer roots.

4Before I could move on to those wider issues I needed to devote some serious attention to examining what I call the here and now. So the book begins from a lengthy example from contemporary England. Looking at the present gave me the interest and incentive to dig down further into what lies behind it. For the ways we and others quote now are not just random. Even the small matter of quote marks turns out to have a complex history of development and cultural controversy behind it. I hasten to add that this is not intended as a comprehensive history, certainly not a chronological narrative through from the beginning’, or even systematically through a few centuries of Western history – either would be impossibly ambitious. Rather it uses a series of small case studies to sketch some historical background to where we are today and throw greater light on both past and present. It is only a limited study and largely – though certainly not exclusively – biased towards the products and practices of Western culture. But even that, I found, helped to put some perspective on the practices of today and both the recurrent and the changing patterns behind them.

5This book is upside down from many monographs. In moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar and back, its ordering is to go backwards from the present to the past rather than the other way round, and outwards from the nearby to the further-off. Its in an unusual order in another way too: the first part begins with the personal and local rather than the conventional prolegomena about scholarly literature and theoretical rationale. That academic gesture mostly comes in Appendix 1 and to a smaller extent the footnotes. Between them these two have a dual role for they also function as a pertinent example of the quote-heavy academic style which is currently a prominent setting for quotation.

6Im not sure when the idea of doing a study of quoting first hit me. But once it did it I began to realise that contrary to my first presupposition I was in fact intensely interested in the subject and had been for some time. It converged with themes with which Ive long been engaged. Being drilled in the contrast of direct and indirect reported speech in my earlier classical studies (not just grammar but an immutable law of the universe, it seemed), learning correct referencing modes, tussling with differing American and British citation conventions in journal editing, grading student essays, warning about plagiarising, arguing over quotation in oral as against written communication, or contemplating the transmission of wisdom over the ages and who controls it, the beauties of allusion and intertextuality in verbal arts, and the multiply-voiced dialogic processes of communication – all this gives a long background to my interest in the words and voices of others. So too does the elusive question of how we interrelate with voices from other places, and, something that in my earlier work on communicating I found most intractable of all, from other times.

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Titre A confusion of quoting terms
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