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Why Do We Quote?

Ruth Finnegan

I. Setting the present scene

3. Putting Others’ Words on Stage: Arts and Ambiguities of Today’s Quoting

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  • 1 MO/H1845.

I probably put all the quotation marks, asterisks etc where they should not
be, but I use them to illustrate the intensity of the sentences
(Retired slide library assistant in her 70s from Hampshire)1.

  • 2 MO/M3190.

I don’t really approve of larding conversation with too many quotations and
allusions – they’re like seasonings and spices, cloying when they’re overdone
(Middle-aged civil servant, North-East England)2.

  • 3 MO/B2240.

Should I have put that in quotes?
(Retired senior business executive in cathedral city, southern England)3

1What people quoted and how they found their quotations was one aspect of quoting in today’s here and now. But there are also the questions of how and when people engage in quoting, what they think about it and how they mark it out. This turned out more complex than appeared at first sight.

3.1. Signalling quotation

2How are others’ words and voices recognised? A key device for making something a quotation – unambiguously one might think – is for it to be separated out from the surrounding words by some accepted sign. The signals variously described as ’quotation marks’, ’quote marks’, ’speech marks’ or ’inverted commas’ provide an apparently straightforward and uncontentious means for doing this. Here is the device that puts a particular chunk of words on stage – an apparently assured and logical system for dealing with quoting, and for defining it, validated by the rules of grammar and educational prescription.

3But things look rather different if we move from this to people’s active practices in the here and now of early twenty-first-century Britain. Just how such signs were actually used and understood proved to be neither uniform nor settled. As far as the participant observers from the mass observation panel were concerned, there was considerable diversity, and doubts as well as positive assertion.

4Before moving to their commentaries however, let me first illustrate something of the variety from some observed examples in my own town during the same period.

  • 4 This and That: The Cornerstone In-House Magazine (ed. Brian Watson) was produced between 2004 and (...)

5First, quoting marks in a local church magazine, This and That.4 This was a carefully-edited if unpretentious 8-10 page typescript, circulated monthly in both hardcopy and email attachment to those associated with a city centre ecumenical church in Milton Keynes. It contained news, information, articles and discussion, its contributors well used to writing and the written word.

6In its pages could be observed both recurrent patterns and marked diversities. Double or single inverted commas usually enclosed direct repetitions of passages from published or well-known works like hymns or the Bible, or of words someone else had said. Thus we read <Jesus says to the disciples, ”Why are you afraid?”> (I am using < > to mark the examples so as to reproduce the quote marks of the original). Inverted commas were also used for drawing attention to particular words, marking out a word or phrase as some kind of title, or words that were echoed from elsewhere, possessed some semi-technical, metaphorical or inner meaning (as in <”buzz groups”>; <we are ’whole’ beings with emotions>; <loving your ”enemies”>) or being used ironically (<’free’ offers>; <”true worship”>; or detained after he had <’borrowed’ a bike>).

7So far, so familiar – but the inconsistencies were equally noticeable. It was unpredictable whether double or single marks would be used. There were mixtures in the same issue, even the same article. Whether or not quote marks were used at all varied too. Sometimes they surrounded titles of hymns, lectures, books, films, newspapers, or organisations; sometimes not. In their absence there might or might not be other indicators such as layout (headings and indents), special fonts like italics or bold, initial capital letters or, occasionally, capitals throughout. In other cases again both quote marks and additional indicators were used. Highlighting words for attention was sometimes by quote marks, but also, alternatively or additionally, through initial capitals or special type; thus a line from a carol was signalled by both quote marks and italics <”Born that man no more may die”>. The same item could be signalled differently even within a single article. The Children’s Society appeared both plain and in quotes within a few lines, while in the issue discussing plans for a new category of church volunteer there was a mix of <’church friend’>; <Church Friend>; <church friend>; and just <church friend> with no marker at all.

8In the local free newspapers, to take a second area, there was some consistency in the edited articles. Single quote marks came in headlines and most captions; double within the body of an article if repeating someone’s exact (or supposedly exact) words, single for individual words or short phrase. It was noteworthy however that though misprints and spelling inconsistencies were rare, quotation marks were clearly less systematically monitored. Not only were they not always internally consistent but opening quotation marks were not necessarily complemented by closing ones. And in other parts of the paper – letters, advertisements, special inserts – there was no consistency at all as between single and double marks, or their presence or absence.

9The point is not that either the church magazine or the local papers were in any way ’below par’ productions but that such inconsistencies illustrate the relative lack of standardisation in the usage of quotation marks in much writing today (and yesterday too no doubt). I saw similar unpredictability in letter-writing, in the blogs crowding the internet and, indeed, in the mass observers’ own written responses.

10Even in educational contexts there was variation. The primary school textbooks laid great emphasis on rigid rules about the correct use of inverted commas to show speech, obligatory in the national curriculum. But some insisted on single quote marks, others on double. The same was evident in the heaped piles of books for children and young people displayed in local and national bookshops. In higher status and academic-type publications quotation marks were, it is true, more rigorously regulated, and publishers policed their own house styles. But these were emphatically not consistent across the sector. Looking at the best selling books displayed in high street book shops during the summer of 2007 I found little uniformity. Even taking just those published in Britain, some used single, some double quote marks. The placing of punctuation in relation to closing quote marks varied. So too did the representation of dialogue or other quoted passages: it could be dashes, new paragraphs, capital letters, italics, indents, differing fonts. Lengthy quoted passages were sometimes indented, with or (more often) without quote marks, but also alternatively or additionally italicised or in a different font. Some formats were widely used, true, and there were some broad-brush, if not wholly consistent, contrasting trends as between American, British and continental-European productions. But a uniformly agreed and predictable system there was not.

11It should come as no surprise then that the mass observation commentators – people experienced and comfortable with writing – were both certain and uncertain about the use and format of quotation marks and themselves followed diverse practices. Some used single quote marks, some double; quite a number veered between the two; and a few apparently used none at all. Sometimes quote marks were used for titles, conversations, proverbs or other items selected to illustrate quotation, sometimes not. Nor did these writers always follow the rules they said they did or adopt the same format consistently.

12In one way, many said, quote marks were not something they had really been aware of. ’I usually use double – I don’t know why – this is the first time I have noticed’ was one typical reaction, or, as in Fig. 3.1, ’I was suddenly conscious of the quote marks’. But once started, they had much to say in terms of both their own practices and those they had observed, and were sometimes themselves surprised at the result.

13Some were quite dogmatic about the format that should be used. ’Grammatical rules’ mattered and it was right to be ’pedantic’ and ’meticulous’ about following them. But there were different views about what those rules were. On the one hand were statements like ’Double was the way I was taught’ (76 year-old) and ’I always use double quotation marks as that was the way I was taught at school and habits die hard’ (59 year-old). As against this ’I would generally always use single quotations marks in writing, whether by hand or on a computer’ (39-year-old administrator), ’Direct speech is placed with single quotation marks’ (27 year-old), complemented by ’I [use] single quotation marks as more natural’ from a 85 year-old, and a 75-year-old former social worker’s practice of using ’single quotation marks always – to indicate the words somebody said’. A 71 year old acupuncturist remarked on what she viewed as her own failure:

We were well taught at school about the use of quotation marks (double for direct speech) but I have probably got rather slack and sometimes slide over into using single quotation marks (MO/H2447).

Fig. 3.1 ’I was suddenly conscious of the quote marks’.
One-time proof reader and later teacher of maths from St Albans (MO/L2281)
(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)

14Some said that it depended whether they were handwriting (mostly double marks) or typing. One view was that double quote marks were for speech, but single for items like titles, highlighted words or (in some cases) quotations from written rather than directly spoken sources. Many expressed confidence in the single/double distinction, but applied it in differing ways. One interpretation ran

I follow the convention of using ” ” when reporting actual speech that I’ve heard, or that I’ve known to be locally reported. However, if I were quoting someone who had perhaps written a book that I’d read, or who had said something not in my hearing in the past I would use only single quotes ’ ’ (MO/N3588).

15A nurse interpreted her own inconsistencies as carelessness

I use both double and single quotes – the first to clearly define the spoken word, the other to mark titles. I can’t say that I have ever varied my way of writing and… this system seems to be generally acceptable… Having said this I have just riffled through the pages of my day-to-day diary and have found, to my astonishment, that my hasty entries show titles with double quotation marks. It seems that I am more careful with my word-processing (MO/B1654).

16Others were more doubtful about usage, or felt they had not really mastered the rules. There were several comments along the lines of ’I’ve never really understood the difference between the double and single quotation marks’ or ’I do use quotation marks when I’m writing. I’m not sufficiently educated, however, to know how correct my use of them is. I’m never sure how to correctly employ a single ’ or a double ”’. More fully,

As I had a sketchy wartime education I probably put all the quotation marks, asterisks etc where they should not be, but I use them to illustrate the intensity of the sentences… It is a minefield… and I get very edgy because of the lack of my formal education (MO/H1845).

17The general view seemed to be that there indeed was a correct system, even among those uncertain about just what it was.

18A few however reflected on the relative and situational nature of quote marks. A retired film editor and writer commented on the ’curse of all authors’, the varying publishers’ house styles: ’what is regarded as the quintessence of rectitude by one is viewed with the equivalent of an ecclesiastical curse by another!’. Others noted changes during their lifetime like the increasing use of single quotes so that double now seemed ’archaic’. One habitual user of single marks added that he knew from reading nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books that double marks were then commonly used to indicate speech: ’I think that this now looks old-fashioned. In fact, I get the feeling that single quotation marks may be in the early stages of a similar decline’. There were several comments on the absence of quote marks in contemporary novels. This struck some as ’pretentious’, ’annoying and spoiling the read’, a good reason for giving up on a novel. In a more extensive comment,

Sometimes, in modern novels, there will be no punctuation to show that a character is speaking. I find this rather irritating, no doubt because the conventions I am comfortable with are being challenged. I would guess that one of the author’s avowed intentions would be to disorientate the reader, to shake up their expectations a little; but after all, it is only punctuation, and I would not always be convinced that the writer’s intellectual credentials were sufficient to shake up the other fictional conventions in quite the same way (MO/B3227).

19Others reacted more favourably. One instanced the constant quotations by Peter Wimsey in the Dorothy Sayers novels where even without quote marks ’it is obvious to the reader when a quotation is used’, while another reflected on the effectiveness of omitting quotation marks in conveying the bleak unfamiliarity of a post-apocalyptic scene. Or again:

I… recently read On Beauty by Zadie Smith, a book full of reported conversations. A great writer can weave a narrative around a series of conversations without the reader having a real awareness of the techniques behind the text, and this has been my experience with Smith’s book. Speech in the book flowed naturally between shorter passages of the character’s internal narratives, and although these were written as prose, they still felt like speech, albeit unspoken, the novelistic equivalent of the soliloquy I suppose (MO/N3181).

20And while James Joyce’s lack of quotation marks put one reader off, another felt that ’great artists – James Joyce for example – can dispense with them’.

21Many noted contrasting conventions for different settings. Most commentators agreed on the use of quote marks as a signal for someone’s direct speech, whether in formal reports, fiction, or reporting conversations. ’When I write I do use quotation marks mainly to drum home the fact that what ever I am saying is speech and should have more expression’, and ’in fiction they create the character’. On the other hand, as several pointed out, no overt signal was needed if the context made it obvious that speech was being represented, for example in transcripts from interviews. Quote marks appropriate for handwritten or word-processed text were not expected in emailed messages (a few used them even so), still less in mobile texting. ’Quotations’ should be fully indicated in school or university essays, but not necessarily in letters – though, as one pointed out, that depended on the purpose: ’the only time I would really bother is if I were writing to protest, campaign or make a point. In other words a formal letter’. A civil servant pointed out the degree of detail in some official written communications

Depending on what it is I’m writing, I may have to follow the appropriate convention for a document of a given kind; for example, I might have to begin with a phrase such as ’However, the Prime Minister has said’ and then indent the quoted phrase or passage and italicise the words in question, before beginning a new paragraph. There are similar conventions for research reports (italicising combined with numbered footnoting, footnotes to appear at the bottom of the relevant page) and when instructing Parliamentary Counsel (rules differ depending on what is being quoted: UK or EU statutes and case law, primary or secondary legislation and so on) (MO/M3190).

22There were also comments on the purposes for which people used quote marks. Besides signalling others’ speech, one of the most commonly mentioned was ’emphasising’ a word or phrase (this despite some authorities’ interdiction of this as ’wrong’). People used quote marks to ’bring attention to something’, ’highlite a word in a sentence to take it out of the actual sentence and make it emphasised’, ’emphasise a word’s meaning’, ’emphasise something, draw attention to the fact that it might be amusing, ironic or preposterous’. Occasionally people said they used double quote marks to give special prominence even if elsewhere using single ones.

23Quotation marks were also used for expressing an attitude to the words, allowing participants to both use words and dissociate themselves from them. They could signal that the speaker regarded something as jargon or slang, ’a word that isn’t the exact word I want’, or ’to indicate that they are using a word or phrase they would not normally use’, or ’to indicate a touch of humour or sarcasm, perhaps to poke fun at political spin or political correctness’.

If I am writing about something I actually disapprove of – perhaps some utterance or platitude by George Bush or Tony Blair (misuse of ’freedom’ or ’terrorist’, perhaps, or ’rogue state’) I would use quotation marks to indicate disapproval or to emphasise an irony (MO/D996).

24Quote marks could indicate suspicion of some direct or implicit claim by being displayed ironically round words like ’Beloved Leader’ or, as one put it, ’the kind [of phrase] one would follow by ”sic” as in speaking of someone ironically as ”friend” when they were far from being so’, or to convey that ’I think the idea is phoney as in ”politically correct”. I feel sure that the person to whom I was writing would understand the implicit sneer, or I would not have used the term’. Similarly quote marks could ’distance the writer from a description with the implication of doubt or sarcasm’ – no doubt the reason a civil servant found his superiors sometimes taking exception to his reports:

I will put quotation marks around certain words or phrases which I’m not actually quoting when I wish to convey that either (a) the word or phrase, which has a familiar meaning in general usage, is here being used in a technical sense… or (b) the concept or argument denoted by the words has not been adequately grasped or thought through. I have to be careful in the latter case, however; it can cause a good deal of offence to senior colleagues, as I know to my cost (MO/M3190).

25That the use and absence of quote marks was far from straightforward was recognised in a number of comments. The administrator who referred to ’someone officially sanctioned to speak about love, heartbreak or bereavement…’ then added that he had hesitated whether to put ’officially sanctioned’ in quotes:

The reason I might have done was to show that I was using a figure of speech: I know very well that poets and authors are not really officially sanctioned to talk about love, but I wanted to indicate that mixture of superstition and embarrassment when discussing profound subjects which might lead people to act as though they were. In the end, I did not use quotation marks, since I think on the page they can look fussy and selfconscious in this context. I also prefer to trust to the intelligence of anyone reading what I write to interpret my meaning correctly (MO/B3227).

26Several people mentioned alternatives to inverted commas. They noted that their own practices varied according to the input mode, no doubt interacting with changing writing technologies. Inverted commas continued strong in handwriting, italics or bold were easier in word processing. There were many references to the use of italics, different fonts, bold and line-centring. Or again

I do not usually put quotation marks round special words or phrases, since I prefer italics – perhaps to indicate a slang expression, foreign phrase, acronym or jargon (just examples) I might use italics when sneaking in a word or expression secretly scorned, currently done to death in the media, (for instance Incredibly… vulnerable… or weapons of mass-destruction, perhaps, global warming, or hug-a-hoodie). You could say such usage of italics has something coy about it, a dig in the ribs (MO/N1592).

27The writers themselves were not necessarily consistent (one example came in Fig. 2.2 where the author variously indicated quotation by single and double quote marks, a new line, and setting out as poetry). Between them they illustrated a large variety of signalling. Dashes or new lines were frequently used for the purposes elsewhere achieved through inverted commas: to indicate speech or citation, mark out lists, headings or titles, or signal emphasis. So too were italics, exclamation marks, capital letters, indenting, setting out as a list, special marks like asterisks or bullets, = , :- , initial capitals, spaces above and or below, or semi-decorative arrows (as in Fig. 2.3). One used underlining and exclamation marks in her letters ’to emphasise points I am making’. Similar points were made about italics, capital letters (initial or throughout), special fonts, emboldening, line position (new line; centred), or even, in a few cases, brackets – all usable for bringing out emphasis, irony, doubt, a sense of distancing, indeed the full range to which ’quote marks’ can be directed.

28The comments so far have focused on people’s reading and writing where the signal was basically visible. But the participant observers also quoted orally, and had much to say on that too. This undoubtedly interlocked with written quoting, but worked through rather different modes, primarily auditory or gestural. These were often below the level of explicit consciousness but widely understood in day-to-day practice.

29Some commentators said they generally indicated quotedness by speechverbs like ’he said’, ’she said’, ’as it says in such and such’, ’as my mother used to say’, or the slightly less direct ’I say ”eeh, you’ll never guess what my Mam said” … ’; similarly with what a younger commentator referred to as ’the more modern usage’ of ’like’ as a speech marker. Occasionally it was the explicit ’I quote’ or ’quote… unquote’, or (when reading out) something like ’it says here….’ or ’listen to this’.

30The mode of vocal delivery was also an important signal. A few said they made little change to their voice when quoting in speech, or anyway were not conscious of doing so. Others specifically used vocal indications to signal quoted material, sometimes together with gesture. ’I can usually give an impression by changing my voice – i.e. acting out (as they say!), and with gestures’, or by ’pausing and slightly changing my voice’, while another described repeating conversations ’with all the ”I said”, ”she said”, change of voice and gestures to match!’. Dialogues were represented similarly. While reading aloud, ’I’ll interrupt my flow very briefly which, coupled with the lead-up, manages to indicate inverted commas quite satisfactorily’. The signalling sometimes varied according to who was being quoted, as with the woman who changed her voice if it was a family member but otherwise it would just be ’as so and so says’. A fleeting facial expression or quick head tilt were sometimes used for a subtly-conveyed teasing utterance like ’More haste less speed’. Such signalling worked, it seemed, even if the users were not wholly aware of their own practice. As one wrote

I think when I quote (I never thought of this before) I would use a tone of voice that puts quotation marks around the quote. So, pause and emphasise the saying, then pause again at the end before returning to your own speech (MO/H3652).

31Such signalling could get the hearer or reader not only to pause and weigh up the words but to share the user’s attitude to them, whether of humour, agreement, disapproval or whatever. Thus vocal and bodily indications conveyed not just that something was quoted but the speaker’s view of it. One commentator showed she was speaking ironically by making ’the symbols for quotation marks with my hands raised alongside my head’ while an administrator looked back revealingly to his earlier usages

I remember as a teenager, myself and certain of my friends, to distance ourself from the adult world (with, as we saw it then, its tedious conventions), would use everyday phrases in invisible quotation marks, invisible but made visible by heavily ironic intonation. So, I might say on coming in, ’How about a nice cup of tea?’ indicating by my tone what I thought of people who made such remarks in all seriousness…. As the years went by, the quotation marks dropped away, and now the proportion of sarcasm to sincerity has swung completely the other way (MO/B3227).

32Again there was speaking or singing in a ’silly voice’ for humorous quotes or a ’more pompous voice when quoting, especially if it is to my children – this is intended to be funny’. Tone and gesture, parallels to written quote marks, could set a phrase apart, giving it additional weight and meaning.

Our boss told us that work was going to be ’very busy’ – when she said this she meant more than that, and dropped her voice to show this. When friends and family have asked me how things are, or what work is like, I’ve done the same dropped my voice to say ’very busy’, or written it in single quote marks… Putting it in quote marks then allows me to build on that – adding to it facts (like the factory has the extra staff, and as much overtime as you want to do) to make the point. You could do it with body language all the same (MO/E2977).

33The signalling sometimes extended to complex mimicry, bringing the quote to life. Dialect or accent – an American or a northern accent for example – were sometimes part of the quote’s characterisation. So too with vocal delivery – said in ’a Monty Python tone’ for instance, or taking on ’a holy tone based on two cousins, both vicars, who generate mockery’. Voice and gesture could dramatise, not just repeat, someone else’s words, as in

When I was on holiday I wanted to put a bet on the Darby and couldn’t find a bookies so I went into a TIC in the Highlands and asked if there was one in the town we were in. The elderly shocked assistant said ’NOO, SAIRTAINLY NOT’. She was so indignant that I nearly had hysterics and couldn’t get out fast enough. You would have thought I asked for the nearest sex shop… this I tell with all the facial horror etc (MO/C108).

34Less dramatically but equally tellingly an HR assistant and her colleagues quoting others at work would mimic their mannerisms, ’not to their detriment, but to bring to life that person’s worry as when they told it. Mannerisms are such a good conveyor of meaning’.

35If a quote was well enough known an overt signal was not always necessary. With proverbs, for example, ’I would assume that my listener in these cases knew I was quoting, and wouldn’t use a special voice or anything else’ and ’I don’t think I have a particular voice for quotes like ”Time and tide wait for no man”, ”It’s an ill wind” etc…. Everyone recognises that they are just sayings’. Sometimes a quotation would be alluded to rather than fully repeated – referred to as having a kind of external existence, equally recognised by others.

36One signal that roused unexpectedly strong feelings was the twofingered gesture representing quote marks (unexpectedly to me, that is, given its familiarity in academic circles). A few noted it as a convenient tool to indicate sarcasm or irony, but it was mostly mentioned in tones of extreme dislike. Time after time people used terms like ’irritating’, ’detestable’, ’patronising’. ’I try not to make ”quote mark” signs with my hands (I’ve heard too many people say how annoying they find this)’. One commentator designated ’a special place in hell’ for people drawing quotation marks in the air. Ostentatiously demarcating something as quoted might be all right for a public presentation, but in less formal situations was pretentious.

37The shifting ambiguities of signalling quotation thus came out not only in the doubts and inconsistencies evident among the observers themselves, but also in their reflective commentaries on current practices. Ways of signalling certain chunks of language as somehow set apart seemed to involve not after all some clear-cut distinction but shifting and multifaceted modes of staging, varying with situation, technology, mode of delivery and participants.

3.2. When to quote and how

38In what situations did people find themselves quoting and in what ways? This was strikingly varied, if only because the words and voices of others could apparently be turned to almost any occasion. Let me sketch some of the contexts mentioned by the British observers to illustrate something of this diversity.

39Here to start are settings picked out by three contrasting individuals. First, a specialist wood polisher, looking back to his apprenticeship in the famed British Railways Carriage and Wagon Works in what is now Milton Keynes:

’The Works’, as it was known, … had its own culture, traditions, codes and sayings, some of which remain with me to this day; probably because of their colourful nature.
I can distinctly remember waiting to clock off at the end of the day and the discussion being what was for tea. Someone said that what he was going to have was ’ a bluddy gret donkey’s cock stuffed wi’ sage an onion.’ He was joking, of course.
A similar quote that has stuck in my mind, is one for which I make no apology in describing as a masterpiece of pithy crudity. It was a description of an orgasm as being ’like a flock of starlings flying out of yer arse’.
Apropos of this type of humour, was a wonderful quote that I read on the wall of a toilet in the Works and which I have remembered to this day. Amongst all the other silly, puerile scribblings and crude drawings had been written ’Where ignorance and procrastination proliferate, vulgarity invariably asserts itself’. I like to think that it was written in a spirit of humour rather than pure indignation. I also wonder if the writer was quoting or composing (MO/G3126).

40A middle-aged local council worker gave a different picture

Well, on a daily basis I will relate a conversation I’ve had with someone – whether it’s re-telling, to a colleague, an interview or a telephone conversation at work or telling my partner what my Mum has said on the ’phone during our nightly phone calls (MO/H3378).

41Different yet again was a former social worker and bread-and-breakfast landlady now in her 70s. Quotations were a conscious and valued dimension of her life and she described at length the occasions she used them

Over the phone with a friend who loves poetry. In a group when I want to be funny or when somebody’s stuck or got it wrong. In a class, writers’ group, discussion group to underline, or contradict a point. I continue to be surprised by people who don’t know their Shakespeare, but then I would fail dismally over the wording of pop songs.
My partner is not literature minded, but he does love songs. I might give him a line from a song, but not an extract from Morte d’Arthur. On the other hand our cat provides an appreciative audience for poetry declaimed for his benefit, or for a chant from any of the major world religions. It is received as a personal gift. Of course one must temper the wind to the shorn lamb.
But don’t we all quote ourselves, again and again? That’s what family sayings are about, family myths, little shorthand expressions drawn from our personal history – used once, then never forgotten – special words for things the children do… silly songs. So many we don’t realise their uniqueness and peculiarity until perhaps one such expression slips out in front of a stranger, whose blank stare reveals the oddness of our private vocabulary. …
Internal quoting? Perhaps I can’t sleep, maybe there’s a long train journey ahead, perhaps I’m waiting in a bus queue – the repertoire of quotations is always to hand for a quiet, inner recital. All those classics learned painstakingly by heart at school, supported by poems, speeches learned later in life for specific purposes. I might start with a quotation beginning with A, and work relentlessly through the alphabet – or perhaps with a poet beginning with A and produce something from his work – there can be dead ends, but the process never fails to induce relaxation, plus happy memories (MO/N1592).

42One obvious dimension here was the diversity of situations and approaches. But such accounts also illustrated a theme that ran through many commentaries, either taken for granted or explicit: that quoting was not some uniform neutral practice. It was to be used with discrimination, differently in different contexts.

43What was right for one setting or audience would not do for another. Overlong quotations at the wrong time were ’pretentious’, quotes acceptable in a formal speech sounded ’affected’ in conversation, and the young woman who loved quotations in the family circle would never, unless specifically asked, quote anything ’in a formal conversation’. Quoting should depend on ’the person to whom one is speaking, the topic discussed, the time available and the location’: quotations from the Bible and perhaps hymns or newspaper articles would be right in preaching, for example, but not elsewhere. A receptionist exchanged literary quotations with people like her mother whose knowledge meant they could use quotes ’as shorthand for many things’, but never at work where people already thought she was ’posh’. An acupuncturist keen to pass on wise or pithy quotes had to be discriminating, ’otherwise they can begin to take on the mantle of the dreaded proverb!’, while a young man was thinking about his recipients’ likely knowledge when inserting quotations into emails like song lyrics from popular bands or quotes from books: some might be reasonably well known but not the rest,

The things I like more are known of less, and so there isn’t the point. If I was to say a couple of lines and there was no one to know the other lines, or where it was from then there might be no point (MO/E2977).

44Specific contexts demanded different repertoires: at work, in schools, specialists with their own quotes, musical bands, and much else, not least the settings of family and domestic experience. Quotes were often ’meaningless to anyone outside the inner family circle. I suppose it’s a way of creating bonds between close members of the family’, said one married teacher, while a biologist saw the quotation-interchanges between himself and his wife as ’a way of identifying with each other and having a common link’. As a retired teacher noted, ’The whole point of using quotations is surely that the listener will understand the reference; it’s a way of using shorthand, of bonding speaker and listener closer together’.

45Quoting thus depended on both speaker and listener(s). Participants had to share not only knowledge but a resonance with the quote’s implications – an ability to pick up, as one put it, on the ’irony, pun or analogy’ evoked by it. This no doubt lay behind the frequent references to using just part of a quotation for others to acknowledge and complete, whether aloud or silently. Proverbs were the most obvious example – ’Too many cooks’ [spoil the broth], ’Hell hath no fury’ [like a woman scorned], ’What the eye does not see’ [the heart does not grieve over] – but it applied to other forms as well. Sometimes an explicit response was expected:

We’re always using catchphrases and sayings in conversation. You can predict the responses to them as well, which could be a way to manipulate an argument even. If you were to say ’it’s not right’ at work, then some people would carry on the sentence saying ’but its ok’, there are so many other pairings (MO/E2977).

46What medium was used could also be relevant. Some kinds of quotation were held suitable for a written format or formal presentation but not for oral converse among equals and several commentators said they used quotations when writing rather than talking. Painstakingly presented quotations were for where the written word held a dominant position, notably in educational and examination situations. In academic contexts quotations from literary works and set texts were part of the necessary routines, together with quotation marks, formal citation and explicit attribution – artfully manipulated by some:

I always remember getting a positive comment after quoting and crediting Ralph Waldo Emerson in an essay. The tutor said it’s nice to come across students who read and understand the classics. But I hadn’t read any Emerson; I’d lifted it from a book of quotations to support my argument (MO/V3091).

47Conversational contexts, by contrast, often had the ’throwaway’ quote, only lightly emphasised and often with the source not explicitly cited. Some younger commentators were deploying quotations in written electronic communication, especially emails. One used quotations as ’a tag or sort of signature onto the end’, while another inserted proverbs and other quotes into his work emails; having been told he was too blunt, he was trying to make his messages ’more personable’.

48Another way of quoting was to oneself – ’internal quoting’. The former social worker at the start of this section always had quotations to hand ’for a quiet, inner recital’ (or for the cat – she was not the only one to mention that audience). Not all had her extensive repertoire, but many still spoke of encouraging or consoling or delighting themselves with particular quotations, sometimes as guidelines in their lives. A middleaged housewife quoted ’Good Times/Bad Times/All Times/Pass over’ to herself if going through a bad patch, and certain sayings, like ’Be prepared’ and ’Treat others as you would treat yourself’, can ’help you to get through life’. Some said they thought in quotes. For a nurse on the Isle of Lewis the sight of the mainland evoked ’Oh brave new world that hath such people in it’ and a moral dilemma ’a quote from the New Testament or the Dalai Llama’. Similarly

When I’m thinking about things, I will often find that quotes come to mind from books I’ve read, or from proverbs or sayings. … [A] phrase I’m fond of quoting is a saying my Auntie uses whenever you’re faced with a mountain of problems. She says, ’Treat it like you would eating an elephant: one bite at a time’. It’s helped me deal with problems many times (MO/F3137).

49A nurse found quoting a hymn verse reassuring and an elderly widow recalled ’lines running my head’ and remembered quoting poetry to herself to calm her nerves before sailing races. Another writer said that one of the few things she quoted – to herself rather than others – was

the Serenity Prayer.… God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I’m an atheist but still see it as a good doctrine to live by (MO/M3132).

50Proverbs were internally quoted for personal exhortation or encouragement, a good example being ’If at first you don’t succeed… ’. One young woman used proverbs ’to clarify and decide upon things without getting bogged down by negativity’: the saying ’it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ was currently helping her cope with a searing personal experience. A middle-aged bus station controller was more upbeat:

I may quote proverbs when I am speaking but I am much more likely to quote them to myself, silently, to spur myself into some sort of action or to help myself make a decision. When I am working at something which is becoming tedious, I often say to myself, ’I’ve started, so I’ll finish’, or if I am trying to tackle a problem, which appears difficult, for the benefit of my wife, ’Faint heart ne’er won fair lady’ (MO/L3674).

51Silent quoting could have the advantage of avoiding offending or embarrassing others. A middle aged labourer described lines of poetry coming to mind in certain situations – ’but to quote them, well that depends on the company – or else it can seem very pretentious!’. Similarly from an ex-headmistress

My favourite Shakespeare one goes something like ’There comes a tide in the affairs of men, if taken at the flood leads on to greater things’. I like that because I believe we make our own luck and must be ready to take the initiative. I don’t think I’ve ever quoted it to anyone, in case I was trying to behave in a superior manner (MO/E174).

52Quotations were also used as a shorthand way to set something in perspective by calling in someone else’s words or persona. These could come from almost any source – ’high’ literary works, proverbs, family sayings, personal mottoes, topical catchphrases. Religious and political quotes were obvious examples, but people also drew on ironies or analogies in more light-hearted sayings. Quoting whether to oneself or others was a way of interpreting and commenting on a situation. ’A fool and his money are soon parted’ was a response to being bombarded with TV adverts, while a warehouse operative observed that

The line taken from [Shakespeare’s] Henry V about the king wandering the camp on the eve of battle to show his nervous army ’a little of Harry’… comes to mind whenever I see news footage of a politician trying to scramble the nation out of some difficult situation by force of personality alone (MO/C3167).

53Many commentators were well aware that another use of quotations was to shape their listeners’ interpretation of a situation. Debaters staged quotations from famous people ’to add weight, interest or humour’ or as ’ammunition’ to further their argument, and one writer pertinently concluded his comments by quoting ’Have you ever observed that we pay much more attention to a wise passage when it is quoted than when we read it in the original author? (from Philip Hamerton’s The Intellectual Life)’. Lines from poems and rock lyrics were used similarly to delineate some position or ’underline’ a point, and a disagreement with parents could elicit Philip Larkin’s famous ’They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. An ex-civil servant used quotes

to emphasise/substantiate a point, to justify a point, to lighten the subject in question with humour, to support an argument, to give an alternative view while not necessarily agreeing with it, quoting can be used to demolish an alternative view to that not held by the speaker/writer (MO/L1991).

54A young factory worker neatly characterised a parallel usage in academic settings:

Without them [quotes], arguments would not be backed up, critics could be strong and it would be easy to argue against it. You must support your work – that is what we were taught at university. It could make you sound well read, and give you a stronger case… you would also have to (for the top marks) add some critics as well – which you would then somehow dismiss (MO/E297).

55Like parables but more subtly quotations could comment indirectly. This demanded creative skill in bringing a quotation to bear on a particular situation and selecting the aspect to emphasise. One observer quoted from films, cartoons, and novels ’to point out an analogy with the situation I’m in’, another to bring ’another level of meaning to a statement’, or as a kind of ’”aside” as if you were speaking off the record’. Or again ’a loved quotation quickly demonstrates that one understands how another person feels’. A daughter reflected on a poem her father had quoted to her:

It was so perfect, it so fitted how I felt at the time that it meant a lot to me because it showed that both my Dad and the author of this poem had been through this awful experience themselves. I think quotes can have power like that (MO/P3213).

56Indirect analogies, ostensibly in someone else’s words, could be more effective than direct assertion – setting the words on the stage but at the same time partly standing aside. ’I sometimes come out with ”A stitch in time saves nine’” ’, said one, as ’a mild reproof to my partner when he leaves something unfinished’, or

I often use family sayings when talking to the children at school. Sometimes this can be a more gentle way of admonishing them and, if the quote is appropriate, then it is often shorthand for what could end up being a lengthy discussion (MO/A3884).

57Others’ words and voices were also used to indicate detachment, irony or disagreement. In writing this was usually through quotation marks while in spoken forms body language, vocal tone, or just a phrase or single word could suggest a distancing from the words even while voicing them. This, it seemed, was a complex combination: in one sense aligning a speaker with the quoted words while simultaneously disowning or questioning them, perhaps at the same time again laying them out for scrutiny, satire or ridicule.

58Quotations were also used the opposite way – less to distance than to bring an idea or person closer. As illustrated in the previous chapter, family quotations above all seemed to do this, especially those from mothers and grandmothers but also fathers and other (mainly older) family relations. Still in a way staged as a distant voice from someone else, such quotations could bridge the chasm of death and were brought near as a continuing evocation of affection and memory in the present.

59And then, intertwined with all this, there was always amusement and delight. One setting here was personal reading, reflection, and the repetition of wordings memorised from the past. People used quotes, wryly or allusively or expressively, to deal enjoyably with the immediate events of everyday living.

My fondest film quote is from ’Ghandi’ – ’I must rake and cover the latrines’ used to describe anything I am about to do that I don’t particularly want to. My husband says, when he feels that people are getting at him ’I’ll go and cut something off then’, though we don’t know where it comes from. We both, when responding to non-serious apologies say, ’That’s one-two-three-alright’ with a whimper and a sigh. This comes from [X], who really does say ’That’s... alright’ and expect people to feel guilty about her (MO/N3588).

60Quotations were used to entertain, whether through quips ornamenting everyday converse, recitals at family gatherings, or formal occasions for speech-making. Humour and pleasure emerged in accounts of live conversations with family or familiar friends and colleagues. A civil servant slipped her granny’s ’strange sayings’ into family conversations ’just for fun’, quotes could ’enrich text and conversation’, proverbs ’used wittily… usually raise a response’, and song lyrics in banter delighted friends at work. Quotes were good for humour or sarcasm – or indeed mischievous provocation, as in ’I like saying ”the pot calling the kettle black”, ”a bad workman blames his tools” or ”if the cap fits”, all of which can be guaranteed to annoy someone if the occasion is right’.

61Enjoyable too were mock analogies and parodies. Clever misquotations in newspapers headlines drew the eye and many people had played around with known quotations. ’As kids we used to do parodies of local proverbs, mostly without knowing what the arguments meant’, said one, while the familiar ’If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ turned into ’if it is broke, panic’, and a husband extemporised ’Hell hath no fury like a woman’s corns’ of his wife’s painful foot. Another wrote how he had first heard ’Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups’ in a journalism course (meaning ’Check it!’); together with other proverb-like phrases like ’Opinions are like arseholes – everybody has one’, ’About as much use as a chocolate fireguard’, ’If at first you don’t succeed, give up’ or (another take on it) ’If at first you can’t succeed, suck oranges!’.

62Keeping your end up in personal interaction came in too, for quoting could be used to impress or entertain others. A widower had quoted long poems learnt at school to impress his wife ’but for no other reason’, a company director used proverbs just ’to show what a clever-clogs I am’ and a 59-year-old relished puzzling people with Latin tags from his youth: ’I enjoy the incomprehension they produce’. The retired headmistress capped others’ quotes ’for fun or to squish them’ while for another

The most fun to be had from quotations is when like-minded people get together and suddenly one spouts a quotation and then someone gives the opposite one and then the game continues. It can be quite funny and often you remember ones you thought you had forgotten (MO/H1703).

63All in all, ’sayings and quotes help conversation along’.

64And all this was often ingeniously combined with that other attribute of many (though of course not all) much-used quotations – their brevity, encapsulating some particular vision in colourful and memorable shorthand. This added to their delightful artistry – something to be heard and relished, and passed on to others. ’I love quotes as usually they sum up a situation in a few words and sometimes can be very funny’.

65People were thus skilled in tapping into the occasions where quotations could be deployed, to an extent shared with others but also manipulated in ways personal to the individual. The open-ended but multiply evocative dimensions of quoting could be turned to many situations. Part of the pleasure lay in bringing out the connections and the analogies, building on the capacity of quotation to capture something succinctly and wittily while at the same time introducing an element of distance and perspective. In the ’here and now’ described here, people were making discriminating use of quoting and quotations in a host of varied and personally meaningful situations. In that sense quoting was not so much some possession of the academic learned world or of reference books as an actively developed – if variably taken up – art in the world of people’s everyday actions.

3.3. To quote or not to quote

66The discrimination needed in quoting itself created disagreement however, and the very quoted forms specially valued by some earned strong disapprobation from others. Indeed the concept and practices of quoting were imbued with doubt and ambivalence, raising issues on which some writers reflected extensively.

67One problem lay in divergent views about what counted – or should count – as ’quotation’. Was it only ’famous’ sources? Where did ’plagiarism’ begin and end? What about singing, well-known phrases embedded in everyday language or new-minted sayings? Such questions were taken up by a number of the commentators – individuals experienced in expressing themselves in writing and accustomed to reflecting on knotty issues.

68Certain forms were, it seemed, unambiguously ’quotations’. These were described in such terms as ’standard quotes’, ’official quotations’, ’famous’ or ’well-known’ sayings, ’quotes from famous people or intelligent ones like Shakespeare’. They were ’the words of someone… officially sanctioned to speak about love, heartbreak or bereavement; a poet, an author, a great historical figure’, from ’English literature generally – stuff I learned at school’, ’the sort that gets anthologised’.

69But precisely what fell within that category at any one time was less defined. It depended among other things on generation, locality, background, changing educational curricula and published collections as boundaries shifted to incorporate excerpts from more recent sources. The schooled tradition seemed the predominant reference standard, looking to ’the poets’, Shakespeare (seemingly ’the’ quotations-author par excellence), the Bible, and, to a slightly lesser extent, prose writers from the traditional literary canon. Sometimes it was also the words of figures like Churchill or Roosevelt who had attained a status as quotation-originator. For a few (mainly older) commentators, excerpts from Latin or Greek authors automatically qualified. Such sources were ratified by appearing in quotations collections and school curricula, seen as authorised by high culture. Whatever people’s individual likes or dislikes, these had a kind of existence in their own right – as being, undisputed, ’quotations’.

70’Proverbs’ were another category. They did not have a named author – for some a basis of doubt as to how far they were real quotations – but something labelled as a ’proverb’ was often taken as an eminently quotable chunk of words. That too was somewhat ambiguous however. For though there was a vague idea that there might be a known canon of accepted proverbs, many professed themselves uncertain whether or not particular sayings qualified.

71Sayings attributed to more recent ’topical’ figures and to ’celebrities’ were sometimes described under terms like ’clichés’ or ’catchphrases’ rather than ’quotations’ proper. Others counted them as quotable, however, often under the more informal term ’quotes’ (though nowadays the nouns ’quote’ and ’quotation’ are in practice often used interchangeably). And then there were sayings by less known personages who had pronounced something worthy of repetition. Some, like the ’family’ quotes illustrated earlier, endured over time and were seen as having some kind of autonomous existence, but others were drawn from passing conversations, repeated perhaps once for a specific purpose and in that sense quoted but not quite classed as ’a quotation’. But such distinctions too were unpredictable, as when a small one-off remark settled down into a more frequently cited quotation. The boundaries around and within ’quotation’ were shiftable and diversely drawn.

72It was pointed out too that new quotations could emerge and become recognised: even with the ’authorised’ quotations the ranks were not closed. Several commentators furthermore aspired to establishing their own quotations. A retired nurse had always wanted to make a quote to be remembered by and a motorcyclist had adapted Orwell to coin her ’Two wheels good, four wheels bad’. Another gleefully recounted making up her ’own quote’ in riposte to a lift-cadging acquaintance’s remarks on her luck in owning a car: ’The harder I work the luckier I get’.

73Amidst this variety there was no consensus on just what it was that made something a quotation. It was perhaps partly how far a particular wording seemed to have become crystallised and relatively permanent, not just something ephemeral or one-off among a few individuals. This was obviously a matter of degree, again with indistinct boundaries. There was also was some vague feeling that format was perhaps relevant – that ideally a quote was short, condensed and possibly with rhythmic, alliterative or parallel structure and/or metaphorical import, as with many proverbs as well as the ’new’ quotes just mentioned. But this was not a universal or clearly articulated view, and certainly not easily applicable to the lengthy literary quotations prioritised by others.

74Many raised the puzzle of whether something had to be recognised as such to count as a ’quotation’. They pointed to the problem of phrases now more or less part of common currency, and several commentators who reckoned they did not consciously go in for quotations qualified this with such remarks as ’I suppose I do use them without realising their source’. Numerous examples of what might in one way be regarded as ’quotations’ had now, as one put it, been ’subsumed into the language and we hardly recognize them even as we’re saying them, except as a faint echo or a kind of diction which is not our normal speech’. This was noted not just for wordings originally from such sources as Shakespeare, the Bible or other literary forms but also for short sayings like ’It’s an ill wind’ or ’Killing two birds with one stone’ - all ’now a normal part of speech’ where ’I quote without realising’. And then again there were the slogans, buzzwords, and sayings within specific circles, as in ’I have heard these [family] quotes so often that they have become a part of everyday language that I use’. Many, it seemed, might share the hesitation of the writer who after commenting ’A little learning is a dangerous thing and I cannot write with any authority on this’, immediately went on to add:

Should I have put that in quotes in case the reader didn’t recognise it as a proverb? I think to do so would have been an insult to a reader sufficiently well-read to recognise it and if they don’t maybe they’ll think it a clever turn of phrase of my making! (MO/B2240).

75There was a spread of opinions, then, but no agreed set of characteristics marking off ’quotation’. Some were widely accepted and indeed seemed quite remarkably durable (a point to return to in Chapter 5), but for most putative quotations it ultimately turned on how far they were considered as such by someone – perhaps many, perhaps few, perhaps just one individual.

  • 5 5 The main exception is the literature on ‘plagiarism’ and related concepts (see further in Chapte (...)

76Interwoven through these ambiguities were at the same time surprisingly strong feelings about quotation. Much of the literature on quoting focuses on the production side or, at any rate, on the act of quoting and (predominantly) its perceived benefits.5 Many of the mass observers threw a different light on it, for they also drew attention to the reception and situations of quoting, and to the relationship of speaker and hearer(s). There was an interesting range of views, from disapproval of the whole idea of quoting (variously understood) to sharp comments on right and wrong ways to do it.

77Some expressed themselves vehemently against quoting altogether. Quoting was to depend on others’ words. It was ’hackneyed’, being unable to form ’your own opinions’, a lack of ’original thought’. Again and again there were comments like ’Why quote someone when you’ve got a brain to say it your way?’, ’People rarely add to the wisdom of the person they’re quoting, they simply ”parrot” a related phrase’, ’If [people] quote too much I think they don’t have anything of their own to say or don’t understand what they are trying to convey’, and the dismissive ’I seldom use quotes. I prefer to say something original’.

78Quoting was seen as a lazy way of avoiding doing the thinking yourself, or of trying to cover up a weak argument. There were many comments on the lines of ’I can’t stand people who hide behind biblical quotes in defence of their own, sometimes bigoted, views’ or those who rely ’on the authority of others rather than the strength of their own arguments’. Even people who quite approved of quoting qualified this by comments like

The only thing that I don’t like about quotes, is that it takes words out of someone else’s mouth, rather than your own. We use quotes when we can’t find the appropriate words for ourselves.… Sometimes quotes are used when the speaker/writer believes that the other person will respect the quoted person more than themselves. I think that is sad (MO/D3644).

79Sometimes the critique was in retrospect. A middle-aged civil servant wondered whether the schoolteachers of his childhood who used to ’ ’sling a line of poetry as an answer to a direct question, were simply substituting the potted wisdom of a quotation for the reasoned expression of their own conclusions’. Another surmised more charitably that other people doubtless quoted for the same reasons she did, as ’a slightly lazy way of making a point, using words which someone else has already expressed appropriately’.

80Others voiced little objection to quoting in general, but took great exception to people ’over-doing’ it, another recurring complaint. ’I don’t really have a problem with other people quoting, unless it’s constantly’ said one, and ’if someone was quoting every time they answered you… I would find myself switching off’; at best this would be ’tedious’ and ’a bit of a bore’. Another instanced a friend who was ’a notorious user of quotations’ in conversation

almost always of a literary nature, originating with writers or film and theatre directors. In his case the usage is always intelligent and the source always acknowledged. This does nothing to prevent the habit being extremely tiresome! (MO/H1541).

81The key issue was less the quantity than the appropriateness. To be approved, the setting had to be apt, so too the manner and the relationship between quoter and audience. Worst of all was if the speaker was ’showing off’ or displaying ’erudition’ (an emotive and repeatedly used word). Such quoters were ’pretentious’ and ’pompous’, doing it ’to prove they are something they aren’t’, ’trying to appear erudite by using obscure texts’. Those who quoted a lot

probably intend to increase their authority by doing so, to sketch in a vast hinterland of knowledge and learning that they are able to dip into at will. As with anything that is designed rather too obviously to impress, it has the opposite effect and turns me off (MO/B3227).

82Or, flatly, ’people who quote other famous people or even the Bible are boring buggers’.

83Others were more tolerant but still expressed reservations. A speaker concerned to avoid pretentiousness stressed that it all depended how it was done: ’if I’m showing off, then I’d get what I deserve’, he said, recalling the time he’d been told he sounded like ’a middle class, male pompous ass!’. Another reckoned that using quotations in a way that suggested you might have actually read the original could be effective, but ’use a single quotation out of context’ and you could end up spouting words you don’t understand and impressing no one but yourself. And if quoting could sometimes increase your authority ’it’s a fine line between that and… pomposity’. Similarly

I react favourably to others quoting in conversation or letters if the quote is apt, authoritative and interesting. Sometimes they want to reinforce their own opinion with the weight of a famous authority, and sometimes they do it to show off, to indicate that they are widely read and knowledgeable. Sometimes I am impressed, and sometimes I feel that they are posturing, and just ’parrotting’ someone else’s argument (MO/M1395).

84A middle-aged translator’s self-critique articulated both a common viewpoint and the way perspectives could shift:

I’m a bit ambivalent about the whole thing these days. While it can be useful to quote a particularly pithy formulation, which rather neatly sums up an opinion, attitude, dilemma, etc, or which indicates that someone has experienced the same problem before, I am becoming increasingly aware that quotations are often used to indicate the erudition of the quoter. I suspect this is because I was once guilty of it myself, in my younger and more pretentious days. Even then I had a particular loathing for those especially well-educated types who quoted in Latin or Greek (an utterly pointless exercise, except in the sense of intellectual display) and over time I decided that it was this urge to display that was at the root cause of most quoting (MO/W3731).

85This kind of attitude underlay the hostility some showed to published volumes of quotations. ’Why do people use such books?’, asked one, concluding ’Probably to make themselves appear knowledgeable, to boost their ego or just to show off’; or again it was for ’trying to impress with second hand knowledge’ or show off to ’like-minded people at dinner parties’. As one commentator insisted, she was capable of choosing her own favourite quotations, and

I think people have these books for either (or both) of two reasons. a) they want to appear more cultured and well read than they are, so they pop the book on the coffee table, or b) they want to impress at dinner parties by appearing to have read books that they think they should have. The only bits they know are the famous bits (MO/M3669).

86The charges of lack of originality and, more especially, of showing off were also related to the type of quotation. People were particularly ambivalent about ’famous quotations’, i.e. those seen, broadly, as from the traditional literary canon. A somewhat defensive deference for what was termed a ’superior education’ came out in comments like ’if someone quotes a poem or Shakespeare it always strikes me as pretentious. Or perhaps I’m just being jealous?’. ’I am not educated enough’ was a common strand, and a sensitivity about being on the receiving end. When quoters seemed to be using their ’superior knowledge or background’ it could make the recipients feel inferior, ’especially when the quote is in Latin or French (I was useless at Latin)’. There was a clear wariness of quotations seen as belonging to the elite, high culture, ’snobs’, educational authorities. People who engaged in ’serious quotations’ were ’pompous’, and a young civil servant was explicit in condemning ’people who quote from literature’:

I think it’s done to almost prove they are something they aren’t. It’s almost like saying ’Listen to me. I can quote from Shakespeare. Aren’t I cultured and intellectual.’ Well, no, frankly. You’re an idiot! (MO/M3669).

87Not all took this line. A more neutral view was that ’People don’t have more or less authority by using quotations. It’s only something they’ve learned or read in the past’. And against those who objected to erudite quotations were those who valued them and from their side deplored the quoting of ’clichés’ from contemporary films or shows. For others still, lines from rock lyrics or rap were unsuitable for quoting. So too were sayings from within an intimate circle. Proverbs were sometimes disapproved, as (for example) ’old-fashioned’. Others disliked people’s talking being quoted, as in the retired typesetter’s comment that ’Nothing can be less funny that listening to someone who repeatedly uses someone else’s remarks’ – doubts which they might – perhaps? – not have felt so strongly if the original speaker or writer had been of acclaimed public standing.

88Such judgements were in part individual, not reducible to broad sweep trajectories. It made a difference too whether or not someone personally warmed to a quotation’s source or whether it had good or bad personal memories associated with it. Several commentators considered that if the ’authority’ invoked was of little interest or, alternatively, disapproved or resented, the effect might be the opposite of that intended. This no doubt underlay the objection, from some, to quotes from current mass media shows (not worth repeating), from others to archaic-sounding quotations (unintelligible or exclusionary), or from others again to proverbs (unpleasant school associations). More generally ’Hearing people quote can be good, but mainly it would depend on if you knew the original source, and liked it’ and ’I am less likely to be moved by quotations from a newspaper or programme I dislike, or a person or author I mistrust’.

89The setting and participants were factors too. Quotations had to be judged by the recipients (not just the quoter) to be appropriate and to fit the expectations and understanding of their audience. As one complained of a family member who was constantly quoting, ’his points are rarely funny to me, since I neither know the person (probably a historical figure) or the scenario – and sometimes don’t get the quote’s relevance to the conversation’. Pushing quotations at someone who was uninterested or preoccupied was another fault. Thus a nurse reflected that a ’full-blown quote’

appears to demand more than the fair share of the listener’s attention, by proxy, so to speak. It appears to demand a response and can be irritating. It may… be used by a person to lend authority to something that they believe and require you to spend ages justifying yourself (if you take it on) or refuting the other person’s imposition of their position over yours. A clear example is that of the holy roller who censures you for something you are engaged in doing by quoting the Bible at you, inviting debate when you don’t want to have one, you just want to do whatever it is that is meeting with their disapproval in peace! (MO/N3588).

90As illustrated in the previous section, the art of quoting appropriately was indeed practised with some care. In addition a number of commentators also reflected extensively on what was needed for this. One middle-aged civil servant commented at length. He avoided ’famous quotes’ as likely to sound portentous but did quote

poems, plays, songs and so on when I’m talking or writing to close friends, my wife, my brother and certain work colleagues. The difference between this and other contexts is that we share a common stock of ’references’ which can be quickly recognised when quoted or, as is more usual, alluded to in the course of a conversation, a letter or an e-mail. I don’t really approve of larding conversation with too many quotations and allusions - they’re like seasonings and spices, cloying when they’re overdone - but if you’re going to use them at all it must be in the expectation that your listeners will recognise the quotation, or at least know that you’re quoting, and will award you the appropriate points for elegance and wit. …
Among the members of my own circle I can be reasonably sure, although… some of them have become completely detached from their original contexts and turned into private jokes. ’And the darkness was cast down over his eyes’, for example, uttered in sepulchral tones, indicates that the person being talked about was blind drunk and subsequently suffered from a mortal hangover; it’s taken from a Penguin translation of the Iliad, in which it recurs whenever a warrior gets killed (MO/M3190).

91People were also well aware that quotes could be used to get at someone or be aimed against the recipient. This was the more so if the quoter was disliked – an estranged ex-husband was one example – or associated with some uncomfortable situation or relationship. A middle-aged ex-librarian explained her dislike of proverbs:

We had to learn that sort of thing off by heart at school and I think I associate them with repression! My mother had some very irritating maxims. My pet hate was ’There’s no such word as can’t!’ Obvious nonsense but I never dared say so! … My husband hated it if she said to him: ’I’ve got a bone to pick with you!’ (MO/S2207).

92Even in relatively neutral situations being on the receiving end could be unrewarding. ’I’m sure there is more pleasure in using them’, mused one observer, ’than there is in reading them as supplied by another’. Unwanted or resented quotes were the more piercing because someone else’s weight was seemingly super-added to the speaker of the moment. Quoting could ’give authority to personal opinions. Perhaps this is the point of all quoting: we are involving someone else to back us up’ – but for the recipient that could have negative as well as positive connotations.

93The ’appropriate situation’ was also linked to who was involved. Quoting – or at any rate quoting of a certain kind – was tolerable from those in particular roles, but unacceptable, even outrageous, from others. Again and again people made the point that they expected preachers, politicians and speech makers to lard their words with quotations while thoroughly disliking any parallel ’pretentiousness’ from friends or colleagues in informal interaction. A tongue-in-cheek list encapsulated this neatly:

Generally speaking, the only people who should be allowed to quote are: Politicians: Remember Thatcher’s awful ’Where there is hatred let us sow love’?

Press officers
Newspaper columnists
Any embroiderer looking for a text for a sampler
And that’s about it (MO/ R1760).

94Essentially the same point was expressed by a former newspaper editorial manager:

My working life dictated that I should be a listener rather than a talker and I don’t recall anyone quoting at me – apart, that is, [from] a Methodist lay-preacher who used to address Sunday afternoon classes when I was a teenager. He was acceptable, and I could even tolerate the doorstep righteousness of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but anyone else attempting to quote chapter and verse in ordinary conversation would firstly bore and then irritate me. I would probably regard them as attempting to be better than they actually were.That or a suitable case for treatment (MO/B1654).

95The most extreme disapproval was of ’plagiarism’. This was taken as the extreme example of the wrong way to treat others’ words. It was a kind of fraud, even theft, condemned as ’despicable’, ’disgraceful’, ’horrifying’, ’a huge problem’, a form of ’stealing’, ’cheating’, ’the moral equivalent of theft’, ’abuse of other people’s works and words’. Less damningly but still in disparaging tones it was ’laziness’, ’an easy way out’, and missing out on the true rewards of learning.

96The main ire was directed towards students, often linked to their perceived opportunities for downloading material from the web and the deteriorating educational standards constantly lamented as typical of the present. But these were not the only settings where plagiarism was castigated. A molecular biologist found it endemic in his workplace – ’not only tacitly encouraged but most of the managers will out and out steal other’s work for their own gain’ – and a retired local government officer recounted being a victim of plagiarism when his superiors used his work without attribution. A more colourful conclusion was ’Like any other type of thief, I think plagiarists should be strung up by the balls and left for the crows to feed on’.

97These strong expressions coincided with the punitive tone of much current conventional wisdom. The wrong way to use quotations was to flout the prescribed rules (assumed to be there, though just what they were was not always explicit): breaking these was a dire offence. One commentator neatly invoked a well-known quotation himself to conclude ’Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name is still a rose and when it comes to plagiarism a cheat by any other name is still a cheat’.

98A few saw it as more ambiguous however. They queried whether repeating someone else’s words without explicit attribution was necessarily something new, or, even if it was, as ever likely to die out: ’students who are using the Internet, will go on finding what they need for their work…. ”the cat is out of the bag” now’. A few thought teachers and assessment systems as much to blame as students, and a couple judged the whole issue irrelevant since ’Free speech should be just that. If you voice your opinion, expect to share it’ and ’Once a word is uttered, it becomes public property’. Another view was that attitudes to quoting might in any case be changing. A university administrator commented that having previously been scornful of students accused of plagiarism

now I (very slightly) wonder. So called received values do change over time. Researching things on the internet myself, I often find the same passage repeated on different sites with no indications where it first originated or that any of the authors are quoting the work of another. Perhaps students take from this the lesson that text is no-one’s property (MO/B3227).

99For some it was partly down to students’ inexperience in not yet having acquired the skills (or subterfuges) of more worldly or powerful actors, the more so that, as one expressed it, ’No-one can be completely original, however creative they are; everyone draws upon the past and reworks it to a new end’. A retired decorator’s light-hearted but incisive view was that ’no self-respecting writer would be caught out in such a dastardly act due to not disguising it properly’, complemented by equally realistic comments like

Student plagiarism, well it’s not anything new, is it. Lyricists and Authors etc. all do it, but the student, being so young and inexperienced, does not have the skill to conceal the said crime, under a cloak of well-disguised word use. We all learn from books and media, and generally interpret the imparted knowledge into a style of our own, hardly original thoughts, just re-machined (MO/T3155)


Who can know if what they are saying is their own thought or one that is an unknown memory. Did I just think I say that from my own head or was it something I heard but don’t remember hearing. People say there is nothing created that is new (MO/D156).

101As a former university teacher pointed out, you build on what others have produced before you, ’in some way or other you’re always quoting what other people have said. Other people’s ideas, in the broadest sense, are part of your own thought process’.

102So if in some ways quoting was taken for granted, in others its delineation was markedly ambiguous. The puzzles and ambivalences were in the end scarcely surprising, raising age-old issues over just what ’quoting’ is, where it comes from, and how or whether to attribute and control it (issues to return to in later chapters). The comments here conveyed the eventually relative nature of ’quoting’ and its perception – a matter of degree, practised at different levels and in differing but overlapping senses, with merging layers of understanding and practice intertwined with the specificities of situation, participants and modes of usage.

3.4. So why quote?

103What came through persistently in these comments was the complexity of ways people were using and conceiving of quotation. They differed among themselves in the content, extent and nature of what they quoted, in how they presented it, in their attitudes to and interpretations of quoting and of how, when or by whom it was done – and not always in approving terms. Some of this was probably related to age, educational background, work experience, locality or the family life cycle. But ultimately much lay with specific individuals and settings. Far from being agreed by all, the acts and experiences of quoting were situational and differentiated, pursued in different ways and to different degrees not only by different people but by the same person at different stages. Even the core definitions were elusive and debated, and the conventions of quoting sometimes fought over, passionately denounced, or imperiously wielded at the expense of others. Despite the educational system, it was simply not true that everyone quoted the same way, shared the same conventions or approved of others’ practices and outlooks.

104And yet – with all the doubts and ambiguities, the institutions and practices to do with quoting emerged as in some sense or another important in the here and now. People were indeed engaged in acts of quoting, and were practised in both initiating and receiving quotations. In one way this was just taken for granted, not needing much conscious thought. But in another, once asked, people had informed ideas on how quoting should be conducted, its differentiation among differing situations and audiences, and, in some cases, the implications of changing fashions, technologies and educational patterns. They were attuned to the specificities of situation, purpose, audience, or individual, and to the skills for the use and reception of quotation.

105It was clear too that people were turning this shorthand and evocative device of calling in others’ words and voices to a multiplicity of subtly-honed usages. Quoting, quotations, quote marks – these were being deployed to convey and enact a wider perspective on some immediate moment, whether of higher authority, support for a position, inspiration, consolation, irony, sarcasm, amusement, emphasis, parody, affection for another, detachment, admonition, ridicule, the world in a grain of sand. They were used to draw together an in-group and by the same token to exclude others. They could be a mechanism for summarising in small but redolent compass, for clarifying, illustrating, justifying, adding weight and interest, drawing analogies, misleading, mocking, punning, bringing colour and joy to conversation, conveying empathy and understanding – and so on, no doubt, through the infinitude of human action and interaction. They could be experienced as hostile, pretentious, fraudulent – but equally as insight or delight, ’the drops of lubricant that oil our lives’ or the reassurance of ’finding an echo, more beautifully or roundly expressed than we could ever manage ourselves, in the words of someone else’.

106It was also striking how often the choice and use of quotations was envisaged as having an intimately personal quality. Particular quotes – proverbs, verses, biblical texts – were seen as guidance or symbol throughout life. Time after time quoting and individual personality were tied in together: ’The quotations a person uses in speech and writing are like a patchwork of their experience and life’, ’If anyone quoted to me I’d think they were revealing themselves to me’, ’I enjoy people using sayings and quotations, it is interesting and tells me a lot about the person in a few words’. Similarly quotations ’reveal the beliefs and prejudices of the person using them’, and ’If you built up all of the things that a person was quoting from then you’d surely get a good idea of what they liked – the music, the tv, their tastes and styles would become clear, and so might their age’. A retired company executive wrote down his three most-used quotations with the comment ’and perhaps these tell you something about my character’.

107But then alongside that personal enactment in the present went the idea of quotation as a text or voice away from ephemeral personal interests and passing concerns: other voices and words beyond oneself. Certainly quotations were to be used, and skilfully used, within the present moment and present company. But the source from which they were drawn – even the most recent clichés and sayings – lay in some other, earlier time, outside and transcending the precise here and now. They were a ligature with the past, whether a symbolic tie into its ’wisdom’ or a personal and emotive tie, and at the same time an implicit claim to the right to take hold of that past. Quoting someone could be at once ’a sign of respect for the eminence of their views and I guess of my own self ego… I know that’s a contradiction in terms’. The voice and the words of others were yours but not yours, for quoting was to put another’s voice on stage while at the same time retaining your own.

108The practices and arrangements of quoting in the here and now were, therefore, heterogeneous indeed. The system, in one sense clear, was neither fully articulated nor consistent, and people’s reactions to quoting and its various uses were ambivalent. And yet, quotation did in some sense exist. There were indeed activated arts and conventions around others’ words and voices, people made informed and creative use of them, and were to a greater or lesser degree aware that they and others were doing so.

109The account so far has been of just one period and area, a body of practices and assessments engaged in by certain people living in England in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But these examples and reflections surely do not come from nowhere or exist in isolation. Further questions follow. Are the practices of today just something of here and now? Do they represent a change – even a deterioration – from the past, the result perhaps of the wonders or horrors of modern technology? Or again, more specifically, how did our system of quotation marks arise? Where did the collections mentioned here originate and are they a feature only of the present? How did quoting start and become established – is it only in the context of modernity or of written culture? How do – or did – literary allusion, intertextuality, authorship, multivocality work? And is the ambivalence over quotation, not least the passions surrounding ’plagiarism’, peculiar to the present? The specific case treated here raises questions to be pursued further in the historical and comparative perspective of the following chapters.


1 MO/H1845.

2 MO/M3190.

3 MO/B2240.

4 This and That: The Cornerstone In-House Magazine (ed. Brian Watson) was produced between 2004 and 2009 for the ecumenical Church of Christ the Cornerstone Milton Keynes. I scrutinised its monthly issues over 12 months from June 2006-May 2007.

5 5 The main exception is the literature on ‘plagiarism’ and related concepts (see further in Chapter 8).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 3.1 ’I was suddenly conscious of the quote marks’.One-time proof reader and later teacher of maths from St Albans (MO/L2281)(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 111k


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