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Why Do We Quote?

Ruth Finnegan

I. Setting the present scene

1. Prelude: A Dip in Quoting’s Ocean

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1As I sit upstairs at my desk thinking about quoting, a series of repeated chunks of language and evocations of voices become visible and audible to me. On a shelf beside me stands a calligraphic display framed in New Zealand wood given me by a (not wholly respectful) daughter: ’If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done’.

Fig. 1.1 ’If it weren’t for the last minute…’
(Calligraphy: Brigid Duffield)

2It declares itself as a quotation by the curly double marks at start and finish of the first three lines and its attributed author at the bottom (the famous ’Anonymous’); also perhaps by its frame, its layout and the white spaces around the displayed words.

3By my husband’s desk too is a poster, given by another daughter. This time there are no quote marks or author, but they are certainly not her own words (I have seen them on the web too, again over the ’unknown’ tag), and their decorative display once again suggests they are being presented as another’s.

Fig. 1.2 ’Dad turns out all right’.

4In the corridor outside for long hung a scroll with words from the muchloved ’Desiderata’

Go placidly amid the noise and haste…
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
It is still a beautiful world

5here with the author’s name, Max Ehrmann, clearly given. Its place and words remain in our memory, though we took it down when it faded.

6But it’s not just displays on the walls. Back at my computer I see quote marks scattered through the texts on my screen, and when I search the web for this and that I constantly come on inverted commas, displayed quotations, ’quotes of the day’, quotations as personal flags in electronic messages and displays, and reported speech all over the place. They come in my own writing too. And around me are some of the hundreds of books from which I have quoted over the years of an academic life, themselves containing further blocks of words signalled as excerpted from somewhere else. Inside them the familiar © symbol reminds me too of the social constraints exerted by authors or publishers over using others’ words.

7On the bookshelves downstairs I see The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations – a long-ago present and the source from time to time of pleasure and information – together with anthologies of poetry to be dipped into, collections of nursery rhymes, and our inherited first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary with its infinitude of quoted extracts from the wonders of the English language. The Bible and Shakespeare are there too – ’full of quotations’, I’ve been told – and books with titles that evoke yet other words. I open a novel and see epigraphs heading some chapters and dialogues of differing voices through their pages. I notice what look like quotations on a calendar and a tea towel, and remember a friend calling in recently with part of Wordsworth’s ’A Host of Golden Daffodils’ written on her bag. There’s a fridge sticker too, picked up from an exhibition on ’The rights of man’ at the British Library:

Freedom is the right to
tell people what they
do not want to hear
(George Orwell)

8The words of others reveal themselves all around.

9And I only have to step into the street to find public displays of quotations. Outside a nearby church a large-letter placard propels a biblical quotation into view while at a vet’s practice the Animal Ambulance Service’s motto ”First do no harm” is displayed between double quote marks. A few hundred yards along the road stands the prominent war memorial, only too frequent a monument in English settlements, inscribed with an often quoted verse.

10Just behind is an ancient graveyard, still used and as ever a fertile site for drawing on others’ words and voices in the encounter with death. Its stones are covered in words, not just names and dates but quotations from the Bible or from constantly repeated sayings, sometimes between double quotation marks, sometimes set apart by being inscribed in capitals or gothic lettering: ’The Lord is my shepherd’, ’I know that my redeemer lives / and at last he shall stand upon the earth’, ’Thy will be done’, ’To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die’. There are longer verses too, many of them commonly used on graves but seldom if ever with attribution to authors. On one it was 8 lines from Frances Crosby’s ’Safe in the arms of Jesus, / Safe on His gentle breast…’ (see Fig. 1.4), on another one of the many variants on a much-repeated obituary verse

Fig. 1.3 War memorial, Church Green Road, Bletchley, November 2009.
The names of the war dead are inscribed above, and below comes the wellknown memorial verse ’Ye that live on/ Mid English pastures green/ Remember us and think/ What might have been’. The poppy wreaths and small crosses at the foot of the memorial had been placed there by participants in the ritual Remembrance Day procession held each November (Photo: David Murray)


11or, among many others, the less common but still much-quoted


12In the nearby shops are piles of greetings cards, often with little verses which might or might not be quoted from elsewhere – certainly other words than those of whoever in the end sends the card. There are novels and illustrated storybooks too, spattered with quoted speech and dialogue demarcated in varying ways from the surrounding text. A little further afield, larger shops stock biographies, novels, histories and children’s reading, all again shot through with quoted words and dialogues, and in some shops one or more of the many published collections of quotations. The local newspapers too swarm with quotes and ’alleged’ words from people they are reporting, quotations are repeated or cleverly twisted in the advertisements that decorate their pages, and there is often a special section for quotes of the day or week. There’s a similar pattern in the specialist magazines that crowd the display shelves and reappear in doctors’ surgeries and other waiting rooms where I and others enjoy flipping through the quotations pages as we wait.

13On the road too I see quotation marks in advertisements, and slogans on the sides of lorries and backs of cars. A van uses inverted commas to enclose its promise of ’A tool for every task’, another advertises a special offer by a colourfully-lettered proverb, ’The early bird gets the worm’, and on the back of a long-distance lorry I note the grand quotation (well – it was in large letters set within double quote marks) ”We’re making a lot of noise about our softest ever toilet tissue”.

14I am also aware of the children trooping in and out of the local schools where they will be instructed in the conventions for ’speech marks’, a key stage in the primary curriculum. As the years go on they will also learn conventions for other uses of quotations, not least about utilising quotations from literary and other set texts and how to cite them in essay and examination.

Fig. 1.4 Graveyard quoting.
Gravestones in graveyard by St Mary’s Church, Bletchley, three examples of the many with quotations (photos: David Murray)

15And as well as visible text there is auditory quotation too. Children interchange rhymes and ditties in the playgrounds, parents repeat nursery rhymes. We echo the words from well-known songs or hear the ringingly familiar passages from the Bible in church readings or public ceremonies. In my own case I may no longer often quote aloud from the classical writers that delighted my school and college days or the many biblical and poetic texts I learnt and repeated at school – but they still evoke memories, acoustic not just cognitive. I do occasionally enjoy showing off to non-Latinate relations by declaiming Quadripedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum, one of my father’s favourite lines – mine too – from Virgil. No literal translation can capture it (it’s roughly ’The hoof with its four-footed sound is shaking the powdery plain’) but once spoken and felt with its sonic syllables and stirring hexameter rhythm it resonates with the sight, sound and tremor of a galloping horse’s hooves striking the crumbly ground. I realise too that quotations from great writers and revered works swim through my speech, if only in abbreviated form, with echoes of sound as well as sense: ’Uneasy lies the head… ’, ’Full of sound and fury’, ’Some more equal than others’, ’All hope abandon… ’. I also catch myself quoting a variety of proverbs or, perhaps more tactfully, silently rehearsing them: the words of others live in the mind, not just on page or placard. Two of my favourites are the (abbreviated) ’A watched pot… ’ and ’Two birds with one stone’; just the other day it was ’More haste less speed’ at a church meeting. So too with the small but colourful phrases that lace conversational interchanges – ’Power corrupts’, ’Money talks’, ’Shoot the messenger… ’: familiar phrases indeed but still with that resonance about them that evokes the feel of quotation. And when small children are around what should come out but snippets from long-quoted nursery rhymes.

16And then again quoted dialogue is not just something in books but a common part of everyday life as we repeat what we have heard from others. I do it myself. Sometimes knowing well what I’m at, sometimes (I now realise) much less consciously, I echo the words and voices of others. I notice others doing the same, attributed or not, extensively or not, and regularly regaling pieces from conversations they have heard or been engaged in or, perhaps, imagined. I hear and overhear the familiar sequences of ’he said’, ’she said’, ’I said’ in a multitude of situations, from my own home to interchanges on bus, street, coffee morning, school playground and hospital.

17My experience has been moulded too by family sayings, not just from the present generation but also ones that have come down the years. I recall words and voices from my younger days and at times still use them with other family members today. We quote my father’s ’If you want something done ask a busy man’, words I still hear in his voice and have always taken as his own – not originated by him, I now realise, but anyway we pass them on in his name. Still mimicked with affectionate amusement is my father’s reproachful ’Now dear…’ (in a tone which conveyed anything but endearment) and we remember too – and still sometimes repeat – his rendition of

I sat next the Duchess at tea
It was as I knew it would be
Her rumblings abdominal
Were something phenomenal
And everyone thought it was me.

18My mother’s favourite was Blake’s

Tyger tyger burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry…

19which I always associate with her bright-eyed delivery. My mother had her favoured maxims too. No doubt many came from elsewhere but they became personal to her, and to us, and we still quote and think of them as hers:

When in doubt tell the truth.
Don’t expect life to be fair.
On faut souffrir pour être belle.
You don’t have to like your neighbours but you have to get on with them.
Be good – but if you can’t be good be clever.

20Or again there was her familiar admonition, with the additional flavour of its further inner quotation,

As your father always used to say, ’On the whole it is best to keep to what has been arranged’.

21In the younger generation we have the exaggeratedly pronounced ’End of the world…!’ – mocking, and hopefully pre-empting, over-the-top reactions to some colossal but, well, really not in the end so very world-shattering, disaster. My mother’s rather effective version, still well remembered, was ’Well – in the context of world events… ?’.

22And amidst the wider family of the spreading Finnegan descendants we can scarcely avoid sometimes singing the odd verse or two of the silly but engagingly self-teasing song we inevitably share

There was an old man called Michael Finnegan
He grew whiskers on his chinnigan
The wind came out and blew them in again
Poor old Michael Finnegan
Beginnegan [Begin again].

23Now that I have come to notice it, I see that not just as academic citer of others’ words but everywhere I am bound into a web of words and voices from others, both serious and light-hearted – shiftingly-crystallised repeated gobbets of text, tones of multiply re-sounding voices. Quoting and quotations are interwoven into my life and into my interactions with others – and quoting, no doubt, in many senses of that term, though I’m not always sure exactly what or how.

24So much for myself. But I have increasingly come to wonder how far my experience matches those of others; and since quoting is not just an individual matter, what are the social arrangements and conventions that promote and facilitate it, and the definitions – perhaps changing over time? – by which people mark out ’quotation’. Is it indeed a universal human propensity or so culturally variable as to be impossible to pin down? Just what quoting is, what counts as ’quotation’, where it comes from, and how others practise and experience it demand further exploration.

25The answers to such questions doubtless lie in part in the far away and long ago of quoting: the long-lived published collections, the developments and institutions of the past, and the literary and grammatical conventions we inherit. But it may be equally pertinent to first gain some insight into the present, into how people engage with quoting here and now. I knew what the school books prescribed, but not so much about how people today actually use quoting in practice and what they think about it. So that is where I start.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1.1 ’If it weren’t for the last minute…’(Calligraphy: Brigid Duffield)
Fichier image/jpeg, 13k
Légende Fig. 1.2 ’Dad turns out all right’.
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Légende Fig. 1.3 War memorial, Church Green Road, Bletchley, November 2009.The names of the war dead are inscribed above, and below comes the wellknown memorial verse ’Ye that live on/ Mid English pastures green/ Remember us and think/ What might have been’. The poppy wreaths and small crosses at the foot of the memorial had been placed there by participants in the ritual Remembrance Day procession held each November (Photo: David Murray)
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k
Légende Fig. 1.4 Graveyard quoting.Gravestones in graveyard by St Mary’s Church, Bletchley, three examples of the many with quotations (photos: David Murray)
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k


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