Quotations: The Ties that Bind Past, Present, and Future

Statue of Thomas Jefferson / Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr, Creative Commons

By Dr. Ruth Finnegan
Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences
The Open University

Prelude: A Dip in Quoting’s Ocean

As 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’.

Figure 1.1: Calligraphy: Brigid Duffield.

It 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.

By 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’.

In 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

Here 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.

But 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.

On 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)

The words of others reveal themselves all around.

And 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.

Just 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)


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


In 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.

On 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”.

I 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)

And 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.

And 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.

My 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.

My 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…

which 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.

Or 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’.

In 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… ?’.

And 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].

Now 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.

So 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.

The 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.

Tastes of the Present: The Here and Now of Quoting

Well, I’m quite likely to quote from almost anything. Certainly conversations
I’ve had or heard, lines from plays, lines from poems or books, newspapers
and magazines, the Bible, catch-lines from comedy shows. Not jokes
(Retired claims assessor, East Sussex)[1]

I thought I didn’t quote much. My husband pointed out to me that in his
opinion I was wrong
(33 year old primary school teacher, Yorkshire)[2]

What do people quote, and how? Where do they find their quotations? And what do they think about quoting? Since my own experience only goes so far, the next two chapters take a look at how some present-day people are engaging in quotation in the everyday life of here and now.

Here and Now?

Not that ’here and now’ is simple to pin down. Even in the most local of local settings people follow diverse ways, and, as we know well, local patterns do not stand alone but interact with others across the world and the generations. To add to the complexity, any population contains people of many ages whose experiences and memories span many different timescales.

But if there is no single ’here and now’, it is still worth starting out not from a generalised invocation of ’what we usually do’, let alone grander terms like ’the normal practice’, ’our contemporary assumptions’ or ’ordinary people’s experience’, but from a specific time and place. So my intention here is to take a slice through people’s practices in Britain today, especially but not solely those in England. It is only a slice, a limited one. But it follows the general spirit of the ethnographic studies of speaking and of writing which have led to so much insight by focussing on the actions of particular people at identifiable moments of time and place.[3] Here it can afford us a closer look at certain specific quoting practices of today before the more historical and comparative perspective of later chapters.

The material comes partly from my own observations. I have lived in south-central England for many decades, interacting daily with people in the locality, reading local material, and undertaking research in Milton Keynes, the town where I have long dwelt.[4] As well as building on this background knowledge I also carried out more systematic scrutiny, reported in the following chapter, of how quotation marks were used in certain unpretentious local publications. My focus was less on the prescriptions of grammarians and other would-be guardians of our language or on the conventions of academic writing so often taken as the norm, as on the active practices of ordinary communicating.

More important however have been the observations and reflections of others. Some of these have been gathered informally, some others come from a large-scale Oxford University Press online survey in 2006.[5] But by far the most extensive source for these two chapters lies in the focused commentaries on quoting and quotations written by some two hundred individuals in late 2006 and early 2007. The contributors were members of a semi-permanent panel of volunteer writers set up by the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex. Over many years these writers have been sending in regular reports on their experiences and observations, writing in free form in response to a series of loosely-organised queries known as ’directives’ (Fig. 2.1 illustrates the start of one return). Predominantly living in England, the insights and comments of these reflective participant observers run through this volume and occupy the central place in Chapters 2 and 3.[6]

The backgrounds, interests and occupations of these writers were varied, as were their ages. There was some imbalance in favour of South-East England, of women and of older writers. The slight age weighting actually turned out not wholly a disadvantage. The longer experience of older commentators brought a valuable perspective, further aided by their reflections on recurrent life cycles over several generations, extending the experience back to the mid-twentieth century, in some cases beyond. And since the ’here and now’ inevitably contains not just current activities but people’s longer memories – of peculiar significance in the context of quoting – this time span enabled greater insights into the patterns of both change and continuity that underlie contemporary lives.

So though this cannot be a full ethnography of people’s quoting practices and concepts even within the relatively limited temporal and geographical span of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century England, it does focus down on a series of actual people operating today. What they do, the institutions and products they engage with, their reflections on quoting and the practices they comment on – all these provide a slice of life that will certainly not be ’typical’ of what happens the world over, nor make up a single uniform system even within its own setting. Indeed what gives these accounts their particular value is their diversity. But at the least it represents one glimpse into lived and activated practices, supported by the commentators’ preparedness to expatiate not only on their observations but on their own personal experiences and individual viewpoints – and, as extensively quoted here, in their own words.[7]

What are People Quoting Today?

The picture drawn by these commentators of both their own experiences and their observations of others was no simple one, and the aspects they chose to stress were diverse. There were indeed some recurrent patterns, but also marked contrasts and (to me) some surprises.

Fig. 2.1 Example of extract from a Mass Observer comment.
Response by an ex civil servant from Staines (MO/B2605)
(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)

A few took quite a negative view. Quoting was a subject on which some had little to say, but others emphatically reacted against. ’Quotes bring me out in a rash’, said one, or, again, ’bloody daft!’. Others again held that quoting was not in practice widespread. ’I don’t think your average person quotes much at all’ was one assessment, ’teachers, preachers and the like do though’, or, from another

I’m not sure if I quote very much in everyday life. It’s something I associate with prepared speeches and talks or the days when I mugged up quotes for exams and made sure to stick them all in so that the examiner would think I’d read widely (MO/S2207).

More sweeping still was a part-time writer’s assessment:

I am not aware of quoting people… I asked a few friends, and none of them set any store by what other people said, nor could they recall hearing anything worthy of remembering or repeating! (MO/K798).

A number felt that others might quote but it was not something they did much themselves: ’I’m not a person that spends a lot of time quoting others’, ’I am aware that I do occasionally quote but I do not make a habit of it’, or, more specifically, ’I leave it to the wife’. Older or widowed commentators sometimes said they had little occasion to quote since they no longer interacted much with others, while another dismissed it with ’I prefer to say something original’.

Many however reckoned that they and others did indeed quote – but often without being aware of it. Again and again people commented that ’I suppose when I think about it, I quote almost every day’, ’I hadn’t quite realised it before, but I do use quite a lot of quotations in general conversation and so does the rest of my family’, or ’Quotations do creep into my conversation – rather more than I thought, in fact’. A housing officer noted that until asked about it

I didn’t realise how often myself and others do quote in day to day speech. From films, songs, poems, scripture, Shakespeare, speeches, advertising, nursery rhymes and even quoting other friends own catchphrases (MO/S3750)

while a housewife who began ’I don’t consciously quote as such…’ later added that over Christmas ’I had found myself saying: ”I’m all behind like the donkey’s tail”, ”It never rains but it pours”, ”What did the last little black boy die of?”…’. The school teacher who thought she didn’t quote much until her husband contradicted her then gave an elaborate account of quoting from comedians, catchphrases, Shakespeare, Churchill, and long-departed family members.

Many hesitated over what counted as quoting or pointed out that certain ’quotations’ were now embedded in the language. ’I am not conscious of ever using quotations but I suppose I must do from time to time’ wrote an ex-civil servant (Fig. 2.1), instancing Shakespeare lines or sayings like ’Time and tide wait for no man’. A young man on a factory production line who didn’t think he quoted much went on ’I could be wrong. It’s easy to pick up bits of language without noticing’, while the administrator who started off ’I would have said that I don’t quote much’ then reflected that

the problem with making such a statement is that so many well-known English quotations (the Bible, Shakespeare, other literature) have 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… So I think it would be more truthful to say that I do quote (and misquote) a lot, but that most of the time I don’t realize I’m doing it (MO/B3227).

This subterranean dimension seemed widely accepted as one of the complexities of quoting. It came through too in general comments like the social worker’s conclusion that most people probably quoted without realising it, and, from a retired film editor,

I think most people quote (and recognise quotes) in a generally casual way, often without knowing or caring particularly about the source of the quotation, or its original sense, or its accuracy – or even the fact that it may be a quotation in the first place (MO/H1541).

Other commentators were confident that people did indeed quote, and knew they were doing so. ’We all do it! Probably Adam and Eve did it’. Many cited their own practice: there were many comments along the lines of ’I use quotations a lot’, ’I have a particular interest in quoting and quotations’, ’I frequently quote other people’ or

Quoting from others is something I do – and I do it when they express something brilliantly and succinctly that I could only do in an unwieldy or less accurate or efficient or especially less meaningful way (MO/H2418).

Another opened with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ’By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote’, going on ’What a delightful topic to be given to write about!’. A large number were explicit both about their own quoting and its practice by others. They had no difficulty in producing examples, often with extensive commentaries.

What they quoted however turned out to be quite varied. Some had wide interests. One housewife in her 60s described herself as ’often’ using quotations, both spoken and written, from ’Family sayings, Newspapers, Biblical notes. Literature quotes, and Reference books’, also quotations like ’Look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’ when speaking to her daughter. A retired nurse quoted ’Shakespeare (from school), French poetry (ditto), the Bible (if appropriate), and jokes or quips from other people’, and a middle-aged customer service advisor was ’always quoting’

from my Gran, my stepfather, (both long since dead), co-workers, my favourite authors, especially aphorisms I come across that I like. Jonathan Carroll is particularly adept with these. I also like the philosophy of M, a co-worker: The secret of a happy life? ’Low expectation and a high boredom threshold’ (MO/D3157).

Others were more selective. For another ex-nurse it was ’the Bible or prayer book’, while an administrator repeated stories but not proverbs and rarely quoted people; she tried to tell jokes but was ’magnificently awful at it’. A retired headmistress didn’t quote ’other people’ but was eloquent about proverbs and favourite Shakespeare quotes. By contrast the middle-aged commentator who had found quotations creeping unawares into her conversation continued

I don’t mean literary quotations; the ones that get used again and again are almost exclusively of the ’family joke’ type, and usually amusing in some way (or intended to be)… I [don’t] use ’formal’ quotations very often (MO/G3423).

A retired company executive was emphatic that he didn’t quote Shakespeare ’because I’ve never had much time for him’ or the Bible ’because I’ve never studied it’. A 25-year-old secretary agreed:

When speaking I would say the main things I quote are conversations I’ve had with other people, and items I’ve seen on the TV, in the paper or on the internet. I can’t imagine I would ever quote the bible (as I wasn’t brought to follow a religion I have trouble keeping up with even the Lord’s Prayer). I generally don’t have a good memory for things like jokes and poems, so again I’m unlikely to quote these (MO/D3958).

Another explained she spent little time quoting others, but that if she did it would be ’conversations I’ve had with someone, newspaper headlines, or family sayings, or… from books’. A retired shop keeper was interested in ’clichés’ but ’not erudite sufficiently to quote authors, the bible or poems’. Different yet again was the middle-aged staff recruiter who strongly objected to most forms of quoting but was devoted to sources from Tai Chi and Hare Krishna, or the widow in Fig. 2.2 who started off ’Being only half educated and a late developer, I can’t say I quote the Bible, Shakespeare or poems’, but then went on to write out a much-loved poem.

Fig. 2.2 An 85 year-old widow’s quoting.
Commentator from Carmarthen (MO/F1560).
(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)

Certain forms seemed to have attained special status. These were quotations associated with formal educational settings and with ’literature’, epitomised above all by Shakespeare. There were continual references to the Agincourt speech from Henry V or Hamlet’s ’To be or not to be… ’, and the 37-year-old PA was far from the only one to have ’lots of Shakespeare flitting round my mind’. It was Shakespeare’s words that were most often used to exemplify quotations embedded in our language – ’a rose by any other name’, ’out out damned spot’, or (again) ’to be or not to be’.

The Bible was also continually mentioned. Biblical quotations came from both Old and New Testaments, including many used in everyday language or re-expressed in proverbial-like form: ’Do unto others…’, ’Love your neighbour as yourself’, ’Love your enemies’. They came amply into church settings of course but were also common in other contexts. Quotations from other religious traditions were mentioned too, if less often than the Bible. For the Hare Krishna devotee, for example, the original sources had special value and exact quotation from the authorised translation a matter of high importance.

Also highly regarded were ’the poets’, meaning those seen as part of the literary heritage, often traced back to school experience. Favoured examples, usually just excerpts but occasionally the whole poem, included Walter de la Mare’s ’Farewell’, W. B. Yeats’ ’Innisfree’, Tennyson’s ’Charge of the Light Brigade’, A. E. Housman’s ’Land of Lost Content’, and (more recent) Philip Larkin’s ’This Be the Verse’. Though less often mentioned than ’the poets’, certain prose writers and orators were accorded a high position, among them such variegated but persistently popular figures as Oscar Wilde, Omar Khyam, Winston Churchill and George Orwell, above all his ’All animals are equal…’.

Individuals also had their idiosyncratic personal tastes, illustrated in such contrasting responses as:

I use ’Lay not up for thyself… treasures on earth’ from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament and ’Gentlemen of England’ speech from Henry V. I use Brian Clough (soccer manager now sadly died) all the time. He said ’it only takes a second to score a goal’. I use it at work… It means keep your concentration
(middle-aged teacher from Manchester, MO/G2818).

I have some personal favourites such as Dylan Thomas’s ’Do not go gentle into that good night’ and Julian of Norwich – the medieval mystic ’All will be well and all manner of things will be well’. There are fantastic bible quotes of course which can comfort at times of sadness and stress: ’Lo though I walk through the valley of darkness I shall fear no ill’ for example
(part-time classroom assistant from Brighton, MO/S2207).

’See the happy moron he doesn’t give a damn, I wish I were a moron, My God! Perhaps I am’… Jerome K Jerome ’Love is like the measles we all have to go through it’… Woody Allen had a rather risqué quote on masturbation ’don’t knock it, its sex with someone you love’. From his film ’Annie Hall’. Another favourite is from the ’Water-Babies’; ’When all the world is young lad, and all the trees are green, and every goose a swan lad, and every lass a Queen. Then hey for boot and horse lad, and round the world away. Young blood must have its course lad, and every dog its day’
(retired motor trade director from Tyne and Wear, MO/G3655).

Others remembered quotations from their childhood. An illustrator talked fondly of his grandmother’s recitations. At bath time he and his sister would be regaled with Rudyard Kipling’s ’If’, recited by heart, while her party pieces included a long segment from Act 4 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s King John, delivered gravely and dramatically, giving a different voice to each of the parts in the play… in a broad Lancashire accent’.

Quotations from these literary and religious sources were almost all in English. One 59-year-old did mention puzzling people with Latin quotes, and there were occasional examples in other languages based on particular personal experiences. But non-English quotations were rare – a contrast to some generations ago when classical languages might well have figured large.

These somewhat elevated categories were far from the only sources for quoting. It was striking how often songs were mentioned. There were lines from currently popular groups, rock lyrics, folk songs, music hall songs and many others. Some who claimed not to quote much still relished their capacity to song-quote. ’I never learnt much poetry’, said one, ’I am more likely to remember lines from songs’, or, again, ’I like to sing songs in voices of favourite singers who sang them, usually just a first line’. A middle-aged journalist found it handy, if his opinion was challenged, to recall ’I’m a rock standing out in an ocean of doubt’ from a Pink Floyd song while a 25-year old noted that on the factory floor

Song lyrics and things from the TV are the most usual things to be heard quoted. More often than not, it’s ones from the past as well, when the other people at work were young… People try to quote song lyrics if it is tied into what has just been said (MO/E2977).

Topical sources were plentifully drawn on, as with the part-time administrator who quoted from ’newspapers I have read, either headlines or articles I have read within the paper… [and] things that I have heard on the television or radio’ (MO/S3372). Films and broadcast programmes were likewise frequent sources – ’we all quote from popular programmes’. People quoted catchphrases from recent television shows, comic effects from radio, imitations from Monty Python, and phrases from the popular ’Catherine Tate show’: ’Everywhere you hear people saying ”Yes, but no, but yes, but no, shut up!” and ”Am I bovvered?” ’. A part-time registrar used quotes from film and television like ’Oh dear, how sad, never mind’ (from ’It ain’t half hot mum’) and ’Get it? Got it. Good’ (’The Court Jester’). Or again, from a housing officer

I quote from films mercilessly. My boss has brought salmon mousse in for lunch today and I am finding it incredibly difficult to resist doing my impression of the grim reaper from Monty Python’s ’The Meaning of Life’. God save you if you sit down to watch a comedy classic with me; Monty Python, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, or almost any musical. I’ll have half the lines out just one beat ahead of them on screen… In fact I possibly quote irritating lines more often than ones I love. Currently ’I love to dance. I’m a dancer’ in the ridiculously Anglified tones of Nicole Kidman in the Chanel No 5 advert, is a big favourite. ’Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed… ’ in the creamy, dreamy, makes-me-want-to-be-sick voice of Andi MacDowell at the end of ’[14] Weddings and a Funeral’ is a well established classic! (MO/S3750).

A young researcher used quotations from the TV show ’Blackadder’ as their irony often suited her mood: ’quoting helps to release some of the frustration I feel if I’m irritated with meetings, or with people being unnecessarily dogmatic or bureaucratic’. Newspapers and the internet were also much tapped, catchphrases for people to both quote and react to. ’Hug-a-hoodie’, ’weapons of mass destruction’, ’shock and awe’ – all in one way accepted phrases but at the same time pronounced, often ironically, with the special ring of someone else’s words.

Jokes were occasionally treated as a kind of quotation. They were seldom attributed to a named author – except in the joke-fiction of phrases like ’My mother-in-law told me… ’, or ’Last night at the pub someone said … ’. Jokes were in fact often explicitly ruled out. ’No jokes’ was a recurrent comment, ’I always forget the punch line!’. But that presenting jokes was practised by some did come through both in the small number who did mention them and – from another source – in a 2007 ’joke survey’ of Britain.[8]

’Proverbs’ on the other hand took a major place. Not everyone liked them and a number said they never used them (’Proverbs? Can’t think of one’). But they were a known category, often pictured as having somehow come down from the past rather than having named originators. Some formulations were taken as unambiguously ’proverbs’, others more marginal or debatable.

Some commentators cited just a few, others fifty or more. The most commonly mentioned, often in abbreviated form, were ’A stitch in time [saves nine]’ (the most popular of all it seemed), ’Too many cooks [spoil the broth]’, ’More haste less speed’, ’Many hands [make light work]’. Other popular ones included

Takes all sorts [to make a world].
Better safe than sorry.
Beggars can’t be choosers.
Least said [soonest mended].
Grass is always greener [on the other side of the fence].
A rolling stone [gathers no moss].
A still tongue keeps a wise head.
A bad workman always blames his tools.
For the sake of a nail…
Once bitten [twice shy].
Practice what you preach.
Actions speak louder than words.
It’s an ill wind [blows nobody any good].
Look before you leap.
A bird in the hand [is worth two in the bush].
You can lead a horse to water [but can’t make him drink].
What’s sauce for the goose [is sauce for the gander].
There’s many a slip [’twixt the cup and the lip].

Other examples again were brought in more tentatively, as perhaps more recent and thus not fully ’proverbs’:

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Talk is cheap.
Cheer up, it may never happen.
A moment on the lips a lifetime on the hips.
Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.
Love don’t last, cooking do.

Less familiar were those associated with a particular family or locality:

Better belly bost [burst] than good stuff be lost! [of food on plate].
Never throw away your dirty water before you have some clean.
Shy bairns get naught.
S/he looks just like a monkey dressed up in blotting paper.
Inoculated with a gramophone needle [of someone chatting too much].

People had differing views about what should be included. Family sayings (discussed below) often overlapped, so did some more literary sources, exemplified by the ex-teacher who wrote

I do use proverbs occasionally, as a sort of shorthand. These are often Tolkien’s own, as I have read and reread his books since I was given ’The Hobbit’ for my 9th birthday. ’The job as is never started takes longest to finish’, ’There’s no accounting for east and west, as we say in Bree’, ’Go not to the elves for counsel for they will say both no and yes’, ’I am right – when I know anything’. All useful (MO/H2410).

In the extensive paroemiological literature proverbs are predominantly presented in an approving light.[9] The observers here however were notably ambivalent. Though only a few went so far as to describe them as a ’piece of old hokey’, ’setting my teeth on edge’, and ’Ugh, no – ghastly’, there was often a strong strain of disapproval. Proverbs were unoriginal clichés that simply stated the obvious, ’old-fashioned and contrived’, ’a lazy way of expressing a feeling or a view’, or ’so ”Common Sense” and conservative they could have been said by Sancho Panza’.

This hostile reaction was sometimes traced to ’smug’ establishment wisdom and copybook morality at school, or the remembered discomfiture of being at the receiving end. As an ex-librarian explained ’we had to learn [proverbs] off by heart at school and I think I associate them with repression! My mother had some very irritating maxims’. A retired executive commented feelingly

Saying ’A stitch in time saves nine’ to someone who has just had a minor mishap is not always accepted as friendly. And ’A bad workman always blames his tools’ can sound unsympathetic when one’s wife says something went wrong with the cooking (MO/B2240).

People particularly resented having proverbs quoted at them. ’Too annoyingly righteous most of them’ was one verdict, not least ’every cloud has a silver lining’ when you were in trouble. ’Proverbs always gave me the creeps when I was a child, and even now I find their hard-eyed peasant wisdom unsettling. It’s probably because people tend to quote them at you just after you’ve come a terrible cropper’ (MO/M3190). An illustrator now in his 60s reminisced about his disciplinarian paternal grandmother,

She brought us up on a series of quotations and sayings. She had lots of them, covering every situation that occurred in our daily lives. She administered them with cod liver oil in the morning. ’If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’, she would say if we failed some task. ’A stitch in time saves nine’, she would utter as she sewed a button that had come adrift. ’Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, she stated as she scrubbed our necks with a loofah until they felt raw. ’Quick’s the word and sharp’s the action’, she would say as she sent us off with a message. ’This is neither fishing nor mending nets nor paying the old woman her nine pence’, if we were wasting time. ’Neither a borrower nor a lender be’, if we wanted an advance on our pocket money. There were many, many more of these sayings too numerous to mention here, nearly always punctuated with ’This was my mother’s motto and mine as well’ (MO/L2604).

Others were more positive and said they often quoted proverbs. Older commentators – though not only them – regarded them as still-valuable wisdom from the past: ’hoary quotations’, ’couthy sayings’, ’pearls of wisdom’ or ’handed down from my parents’ generation’. Proverbs were regularly wielded by parents and teachers. ’I do use proverbs on occasion to underline a point to the children’, said a teaching assistant, while a housewife in her 50s commented that they began turning up in her language after she became a parent: ’a useful shorthand… good advice in a form that would be easy for them to remember’. An ex-shop manager now quoted to her children the very proverbs her parents had used to her:

If they were called names at school or bullied, they were quoted ’Sticksand stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’. If they were trying too hard to complete a task they were told, ’Don’t run before you can walk’, or ’Don’t cross your bridges before you get to them’, if they were looking too far ahead of things. My parents were always quoting proverbs to me. My favourite one from Dad was, ’If you can’t say good about anyone, don’t say nothing at all’ (MO/H260).

Family sayings were often mentioned. There was no clear division between these and other quotes, if only because almost any example can be adopted within a particular group as peculiarly their own. They overlapped with proverbs, sometimes sharing the claimed proverbial features of brevity, balanced structure and wit. The difference was only relative and several commentators pointed to the difficulty of distinguishing them. Quotations claimed as family sayings perhaps tended to be more personal, idiosyncratic, even private than other examples, less in the public domain, sometimes (not always) more fleeting, and usually unwritten. More important however was the personal resonance with which such sayings were imbued: usually attributed to a named individual, delivered in a special tone of voice, associated with some known interpretation, person or event, and practised among intimates entitled to share their usage.

Thus a number of what others might classify as ’proverbs’ were claimed as family quotes. Here for example is one list of ’some odd quotations that the family have used in childhood and hence myself to my sons’:

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
No news is good news.
Less haste more speed.
Beauty is within. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
It never rains but it pours.
Make sure your underwear is clean in case you get run over.
Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.
Mother nature knows best.
It takes a real man to cry.
They are alligator tears put on for show.
There is a sun behind the clouds, whatever the weather.
You need to be in my shoes before you judge.
Cold hands, warm heart.
Eat your carrots to make your hair curl.
Isn’t your hair lovely, you’ll never need a perm.
Many hands make light work.
Cheer up, it may never happen.
Don’t walk under the ladder, it will bring bad luck.
Let’s sing and raise the roof.
Laugh & the world laughs with you, cry and you’ll ’77eep alone.
What goes around, comes around (MO/F218).

A 59-year-old commented that she was uncertain whether her ’mother’s sayings’ were her own or quoted from someone else. Her annotated list included, among many others,

  • ’like a witch on a windy night’ (used when someone or something, e. g. the cat, is unaccountably restless or fidgety)
  • ’we’re none of us perfect’ (Just what it says, but always said in a rather commanding tone, usually when someone has done something frightful)
  • ’limb of Satan’ (a term of chastisement, obviously, but usually used about children or misbehaving pets in a fond kind of way)
  • ’black as Hell’s crickets’ (meaning very dark, or filthy dirty)
  • ’when in doubt, act’ (most similar sayings say the opposite, i e, when in doubt, don’t)
  • ’what’s needful isn’t sinful’ (usually said when somebody does something slightly embarrassing, like breaking wind)

She continued ’I find myself using most of these remarks from time to time; in speech rather than in writing, and always prefaced by ”my mother used to say ” or ”my mother always said”’ (MO/F3409).

The point seemed to be the personal association rather than whether the wording was well-known. Thus ’There’s nowt so queer as folks’ may have been in common currency but for one writer it came from his mother and before that her mother. For another ’Be careful for what you ask the Gods lest they give it you’ was a well-known proverb, but as a family saying it had become just ’Be careful’ since ’everybody knows what’s coming next’. In one family ’Boil egg’ meant take three minutes away from the problem, while ’grandmother’s specials’ included ’God sends the children and the devil sends the mothers’ (a rude comment on her neighbours) and, from another grandmother, ’everything happens for the best’ – ’I like quoting them because they were full of wit as well as wisdom’.

A saying attributed to a particular individual was sometimes passed on through successive generations. ’There’s so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that it ill behoves any of us to talk about the rest of us’ was an admonition one woman had from her mother who’d learned it from her mother – ’a quote that has accompanied us as we have grown up and which I am very fond of’ (Gillespie 2007). A young warehouse operative expanded on another quote:

In the early 60s, my grandmother was watching Cliff Richard on television with one of her sisters – both were in their 80s. Auntie May made some remark about the bulge in the singer’s tight trousers. My grandmother was shocked, even more so when Auntie said ’Well, I’ve still got my feelings, you know’. This has gone down in the family annals – and I hope I’m able to follow her lead when I’m her age! (MO/C3167).

Or again

My father frequently quoted his father, a Northampton eccentric, given to sudden rages, strong Unitarian and teetotaller, so these stretch back to the turn of the last century. They reappear, even today, dredged up from the past, in conversation with my sister, brother, cousins – remembered by each one in his/her own unique fashion!

Sister Mary walked like that
Pitter-pat, pitter-pat, pitter-pat, pitter-pat,
Then came Uncle, stout and fat
Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho.
Uncle Thomas, wooden leg O… io… io
But I just walk like this yew know Oh, oh, oh!

Sung with actions of course. OK not PC today (MO/N1592).

Other quotations were linked to particular settings or events. For one it was her paternal grandmother’s sayings which had become ’legendary’ in the family, while for another ’Look before you leap’ was always associated with her brother falling into a stream. Another connected his mother’s ’Stock’s as good as money’ with the 1940s when, like other wartime housewives, she never passed an opportunity to keep her cupboard supplied.

Local connections added to the evocative quality. Cockney slang was recalled affectionately, as was an aunt’s Irish-inflected ’The divil eyes you’ when you were thinking of doing something naughty (Gillespie 2007). An ex-sales assistant in Yorkshire quoted the tongue-in-cheek ’Yorkshire tykes motto’

See all, hear all, say nowt (nothing).
Eat all, sup (drink) all, pay nowt
And if tha (you) does owt (something) for nowt
Allus (always) do it for thisen (yourself)

followed by other dialect sayings beloved in her family like ’Ee’d eat t’oven if it t’were buttered’ if someone looked hungry, or, of someone not very clever, ’If ’is brains were dynamite they wouldn’t blow his cap off’ (MO/W571). A Glaswegian recalled his mother’s local quotes, like ’If they fell into the River Clyde they would come out with fish in their pockets’ (some people have all the luck), and ’My arse and parsley!’, a favourite of his aunt’s, used ’when she thought you were having her on’.

Quotes within the family did not always use publicly approved language. A retired shop manager recalled her mother’s ’best’ quote as ’It’s stuck like shit to a blanket’, still used by the next generation where ’”mum’s one” always raised a laugh’. Another phrase was only ’when I’m talking to my partner, because it skirts the borders of acceptability… not repeatable here, unfortunately!’. Similarly with the ’My arse and parsley’ saying – ’my aunt… was really a very polite woman so you definitely knew you were in trouble when you heard her say this!’

Quotations could act as a private currency between intimates. A married pair’s unflattering descriptions of people’s appearance were quoted and re-quoted between them: ’A face like a bag of spanners’ or ’like a bulldog chewing a wasp’, or, more elaborately, ’Park yer bike, sir’ of a buxom woman’s cleavage; ’If her chest is spectacular enough, the response will be ’Bike? You could park a tractor in there!’. For another pair, the emphatically pronounced ’It makes me sick’ was first heard from a father but now ’trotted out by both of us on a regular basis’. A widowed part-time librarian recalled quotes shared with her late husband

My Father in law used the phrase ’It was swimming’ which apparently his own Mother had often used to him – if he caught a cold then she would say ’It was swimming’ [that caused it]. This has become a family joke and any unfortunate situation might provoke the comment ’It was swimming’. … I suppose we used to quote things that other people had said which had made us laugh at the time. My husband invited a German friend who was teaching with him to come and stay with us for a day or two during one of the school holidays to which R replied: ’Thank you very much but I prefer to go to Scotland’ (MO/H2637).

A quotations language could thus develop among small in-groups, pronounced and understood with overtones peculiar to themselves. Co-workers shared familiar quotes, ’student-style catchphrases’ circulated, and within a group ’particular quotations recall a certain joke or situation’. Among close friends, colleagues or family a ’common stock of ”references”… 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’. Such sayings were perhaps more short-lived than many family sayings, but at a given point clearly evocative for their co-participants. Time and again people mentioned quoting and re-quoting personal sayings among themselves, becoming, as one summed it up, ’a comforting private language and, I suppose, a kind of verbal shorthand between people who know each other well’.

Fig. 2.3 Sayings in ’our circle of friends’.
From a 61-year-old retired nurse from Derby (MO/H1836)
(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)

Shading into such examples were more recent sayings and conversations. Someone’s words or interchanges, whether from live or overheard conversations, or (overlapping with these) from reports in newspapers or other media, were repeated onwards by someone else, acknowledging that the words were not their own. These were more one-off than family sayings: recent reports rather than seen as originating from the past. They sometimes acquired a longer life, but many were ephemeral, suited just to particular occasions. Nevertheless they were experienced as quotes of a sort – your own voice repeating, deliberately, what someone else had said. Repetitions of passing personal remarks may seem far distant from the ’official’ quotations with which we started – and so indeed some commentators felt. But reproducing the words of others is after all a familiar pattern in both true and fictional narrative, and a familiar part of everyday living. The commentators here made profuse references to repeating conversations and recent remarks by other people. Even those who reckoned they did little ’formal’ quoting spoke of reproducing conversations – like the classroom assistant who initially envisaged quotes as something for examinations, but quickly added that she did ’repeat important conversations – what woman doesn’t – to my husband for example, to update him on family news’. A secretary was typical of many:

When speaking I would say the main things I quote are conversations I’ve had with other people, and items I’ve seen on the TV, in the paper or on the internet… The main people I quote would be co-workers. I like to get things ’off my chest’ after returning from work, and my partner has to put up with me recounting the day’s events (sometimes in great detail if something has bothered or upset me)… I say ’eeh, you’ll never guess what my Mam said’ which usually relates to news passed on from my extended family (MO/D3958).

Others concurred, one describing herself quoting ’a conversation I’ve had with someone, or what I’ve seen/heard on the news or in the newspaper’, another remarking that ’most people fall into the habit of repeating someone who they work with’. A former newspaper editorial manager, now in his 70s, gave an extended account

Today my quoting is usually reserved for what the newspapers or television tell me, or what I hear when out and about. Everything is shared with P and she, too, keeps me informed of what she picks up in the course of the day. This is usually titbits from the shops. For example, the other day I stood in the foyer of our local supermarket while waiting for P to join me. She was at the shops in the town and I must have been waiting for some time when, suddenly, a man of about my own age came out of the supermarket restaurant and said: ’You waiting for a security job here, mate?’ P had to laugh when I told her.

’Such are the drops of lubricant’, he concluded, ’that oil the days of older people who don’t get out and about as much as they used to’ (MO/B1654).

Such quoting leant towards the more malleable end of the continuum between variability and fixity. Several commentators mentioned they did not always repeat exactly but reported the gist of what someone had said. Some situations however demanded verbal accuracy. Where the exact meaning was imperative it had to be repeated ’word for word’, and as a civil servant put it,

I will quote others directly, in recounting a conversation, if what they said was interesting or amusing, or when it’s important to convey their actual words (for example, when instructions have been expressed ambiguously and there may be doubt over what is intended) (MO/M3190).

Several mentioned a professional duty to reproduce exactly what others had said, whether orally or in writing, like a social worker’s duty ’to keep clear and accurate records’ of feedback from clients and colleagues. There was the further twist that as ’an old manager of mine said (and I quote) ”if it’s not written down it didn’t happen”’.

Not all quoting was in serious contexts. Indeed one theme was the enjoyment verbal repetitions could bring. Quoting people was a way of highlighting some expression for discussion or amusement, ’particularly if it was funny or controversial what they have said or even what they said was incomprehensible’. Mimicry and, through this, a kind of indirect social commentary could come in too. The retired newspaper manager expanded his earlier comments with

My daughter’s sister-in-laws meet daily at the home of their mother and are joined by my daughter some days. P and I have called on occasion and the two sisters-in-law are usually in full flow about some juicy tidbit they have read in the ’redtop’ newspapers. I am sure that if what they had to say was to be animated by Disney’s studios the dialogue would emerge as words as sharp as lightning strikes; words in big black capitals or quivering italics – all peppered with a veritable fusillade of exploding exclamation marks and delivered in a breath-taking crash of cymbals and kettle drums! (MO/B1654).

These varied repetitions of others’ words and dialogues were redolent of the multivoiced dramas of everyday human interaction and at the same time a mode of commenting on them, whether with ridicule, affection or exasperation.

What people reported themselves as quoting thus covered a wide range. And indeed one of the main things to emerge from both my own observations and those of the commentators here was the diversity of their choices. Some liked proverbs, some didn’t; some quoted conversations or people they knew, others thought that boring; some liked ’literary’ quotations and pitied those who didn’t. Others had tastes that even they regarded as idiosyncratic, like the software analyst whose propensity to quote from films was ’probably my worst habit… or most endearing feature, depending upon your viewpoint’. Some favoured television or radio quotes, others regarded these as too ’hackneyed’. Some emphasised ’famous’ quotations, others emphatically not. The sources for others’ words were multifarious, from Latin tags, famous poets, historical figures or the Bible, to ephemeral conversations or ’my husband said’, along a multiform continuum of greater or lesser endurance, crystallisation, and public recognition.

Gathering and Storing Quotations

These quotations did not come from nowhere. They were not just free-floating in the air, nor were the choices among them automatic. So what were the processes by which people acquired and accessed them? This was not altogether clear, but some indications emerge from the mass observer commentators.

Sometimes, it seemed, it was quite formalised. Many looked back to school or college as the foundation for at least some of their quotations. This could be supplemented by later reading or learning along similar lines, moulded by the earlier experience of wordings that counted as quotable. Some recalled learning by heart at school, often of quite lengthy passages. A few had seemingly remarkable memories for quoted words which they continued to augment throughout their lives.

Some individuals had built extensive and deliberately cultivated personal repertoires. A former social worker spoke of ’all those classics learned painstakingly by heart at school, supported by poems, speeches learned later in life for specific purposes’, giving her a ’repertoire of quotations always to hand’. So too with the Lancashire grandmother’s capacity to recite Rudyard Kipling’s ’If’ and large sections of Shakespeare – in her case ’all the more astonishing because she left school at the age of ten’. For a retired teacher, quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare or the poets had become ’just part of my mind, that I don’t have to think. I’ve also liked poetry, and learned great swathes of it, and those poems come to mind’.

But many quotations were acquired less deliberately, in the course of personal action and experience. Many commentators deplored their ’poor memory’. By this they meant, it seemed, a perceived incapacity to learn off lengthy quotations from what was regarded as the learned tradition, as in ’I only quote what I have been brought up with as a child. I have no memory for poems, Shakespeare etc’. But other institutions besides school could provide a setting for acquiring specific kinds of quotations. Work, special interest groups, playground, peer groups and religious organisations – all could be fertile sources for repeated quotes. People picked up topical catch phrases or sayings emergent in the interaction of close groups, varying at different life phases, among them quotations specific to particular localities, dialects or families.

There was a widespread recognition that some quotations had become part of current language, known in a vague way by more or less everyone. Several also spoke of latent memories that could come to the surface when needed. A saying from ’the Bible, Buddhism or as is usual for me, a long forgotten source, just pops out of my mind’. The same image came in another’s explanation that he didn’t have a store of quotes but would just use one that ’pops into my head at the time’.

It was noteworthy how many emphasised the past as the origin for their quotations. With topical quotes, current clichés or repeats of recent conversations this was of course less marked – one reason perhaps why some people were doubtful of their status as ’proper’ quotations. But mostly the association with the past was something to prize: a repository of wisdom, to which people could still turn today. For some this lay in the words of great thinkers and writers of the past, or in ancient (or presumed ancient) proverbs ’handed down for hundreds of years’. A former lecturer found herself quoting her parents or grandparents since ’some things remain constant… I suppose I like to quote another generation because what they said made sense to me as well as to them’. Or again

It is going to sound daft, but I always feel a connection to the wisdom of people through the ages. I know it is a bit soppy, but proverbs are a snippet of advice and a piece of truth that never changes. The meaning of things develops all of the time, but the truth remains (MO/D3644).

A retired nursery nurse similarly commented that she had seen from books of quotations that throughout the ages people were ’quoting or handing down in stories to the future generations… just as up to date for today’s readers’, as in

’To do all the talking and not willing to listen is a form of greed’. 5th-6th century
’The secret of being a bore is to tell everything’. Voltaire (MO/I1610).

Quotations bring people together, she added, ’we have philosophers from all races to draw on, to help understand their thinking, and get along’.

It was not just undifferentiated ’wisdom from the past’, for many saw it through personal eyes. They recalled when they had first heard a particular quote, or traced it back to family tradition or individual named people in the past. A retired company director discussing his favourite quotes especially liked ’No news is good news’, one of his grandmother’s most used quotations: she had arrived as a Polish refugee in 1905 and though she never mastered English ’she did say this’. A retired registrar’s source was her mother (now dead), so she ’always prefaced [the quotation] by ”my mother used to say” or ”my mother always said”… It would somehow seem wrong… not to acknowledge where the words came from’. Another’s favourite quotes came from older generations of the family whose remarks ’live in our memories today and we recall them with affection’. Similarly

The person I most like to quote is my late father because he had a funny and telling turn of phrase, never entirely true but rarely wide of the mark: on Polish pronunciation compared with English, ’In English it spelled butter, pronounced ’batter’, but when you eat it, it bloody margarine!’ … I like, too, my mother, who has a more local way: about a neighbour always winning at bingo, ’She’d not get wet if she fell in dock, that one!’ … And my favourite, when as kids we asked for money for sweets, ’What do you think you’re on, your father’s yacht!’ (MO/F3850).

The link to the past was especially poignant if the quotation came from someone now dead. There were frequent comments like ’family members, especially long departed ones, are… remembered by quoting things they said’, or quoting a dead father ’followed by ”As Dad would say”. I think it’s comforting saying things that remind us of people we love when they’re not with us’. For one writer, quoting her mother was ’a way of remembering her’ and of reminding her own children of her, while another who as a child had been bored by her grandmother’s quoting now she was dead was enjoying ’hearing her voice in my head saying these pointless little things’. Another woke up laughing one morning because

I’d been remembering my father’s words a lot the previous day (and obviously during my sleep). If you told him, for instance, that you’d had a rise at work but it wasn’t as much as you’d hoped for, he’d say ’better than a smack in the face with a wet kipper’… I still use these quotations today (MO/D1602).

The associations were not always rosy. A 70-year-old spoke of quoting ’my grandmother (lovingly) and my mother (with exasperation)’, and a middle-aged administrator expressed his ambivalence about certain family quotations:

I am aware of deliberately quoting him [my father]. I’m not sure how genuine this is: it sometimes strikes me as a rather bogus tendency. Before he became ill, our relationship was not particularly good, and I wonder whether I am wistfully attempting to suggest to other people a closeness that did not then exist but might by now – who knows? Maternal grandmother – unhappy, unloving ’Oh, don’t bother’. Now we say, ’Oh, don’t bother,’ in a comical version of this voice; although what it really commemorates is a troubling, unsatisfactory relationship. I suppose making a joke of it exorcizes some of the unhappiness of that relationship (MO/B3227).

Sometimes the once-hard memories were later re-interpreted in a warmer light. The grandmother who quoted harsh proverbs as she scrubbed her young grandson’s neck was by his 60s being recalled more positively.

Her strong influence prepared us for life, taught us how to be self-sufficient and adapt to any situation we found ourselves in. Even today if I’m tempted to take a short cut in accomplishing a household chore, Grandmother’s words spring to mind. ’If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, that’s my mother’s motto and mine as well’ (MO/L2604).

The link to the past through quotations was repeatedly pictured as continuing through the generations. A retired teacher rejoiced in its ’true consistency’ when she heard her son quoting ’to his son, something that I’d quoted to him, that had been quoted by my mother’. A middle-aged administrator remembered being annoyed as a child by her Catholic mother’s ’We’re all in the dark like a Protestant Bishop’ if the light went off – but was now repeating it to her own children. Or again

We lived with my maternal grandparents when I was a child before the Second World War and I can well remember my grandfather giving my mother the benefit of his wisdom at the dinner table when I was proving difficult over a meal. He told my mother not to worry. ’Little children’, he said, winking at me, ’are like little pigs: they eat little and often’. And now I have my own grandchildren sitting at my table on occasion and I find myself quoting the self-same advice to my daughter when the little ones push their plates away (MO/B1654).

Besides coming down through personal chains quotations were also known from being displayed on material objects. They appeared on tapestries, copybook headings, religious sites, framed illustrations. Others were in graffiti or street displays (one quoted the Belfast wall’s ’Fuck the Pope / Who would want to?’). Several writers drew attention to the current fashion for short sayings, quips and quotes on fridge magnets, ornaments, cards, doors, wall hangers, tee shirts and calligraphic displays. One childhood bathroom had had Rudyard Kipling’s ’If’ on the wall, another a framed poster for World War II with ’Keep Calm and Carry On’, which later became ’something of a mantra’ in the household.

Some people went out of their way to record quotations for personal use or reflection. One approach was to write down occasional quotes. Others, however, had compiled extensive personal collections, to an extent that surprised me (I had thought such compilations largely a thing of the past). Several commentators said they had special places for writing down quotations that struck a chord with them, often describing these as their ’commonplace books’. An ex-sales assistant gathered quotations from calendars or the ’saying for the day’ in the daily newspaper (’soothing comforting words to help you along life’s way’), and a retired school inspector described how she wrote quotations from books or articles she had read or from radio programmes she had heard

in a kind of commonplace book where I also copy poems that I have discovered. Here are some to give you a flavour:
’A nuisance is only an adventure wrongly considered’. – GK Chesterton
’When you dine with a rich man you end up paying the bill’ – Hungarian
saying (MO/M1979).

A man in his 70s had a ’bulging file which I have christened ”Verse and Worse”’ that he hoped to bring it out in a private publication, while a retired youth worker had for years written into his commonplace book quotations he had come across that summed up a thought or feeling ’much better than I could have done’. An ex-teacher had kept her ’Quotation Book’ since she was 9, starting from writing out poetry at school as a handwriting exercise: ’I kept my folder. This ”book” is now 5 files’. That this practice was not confined to the older generation was illustrated by the 22 year-old who kept a special book for quotations, writing down ones that ’mean something special to me, and I like to know that I can re-read them if and when I want’.

Another source for others’ words was through locating them in places where they had already been selected as quotations. Some day-by-day diaries display a quote for each date, and most newspapers and magazines have a quotations section – a popular source to glance at in passing or sometimes draw on more regularly. Thus

A section I am immediately drawn to when I receive [my weekly news digest] each week is the section entitled ’Wit and Wisdom’. This section includes quotes that are found in newspapers during the course of the previous week. It includes such quotes as: ’The meaning of life is that it stops’ (Kafka, quoted in The Independent) and ’A man’s dying is more the survivor’s affair than his own’ (Thomas Mann, quoted in The Independent). One that I really like is a quote from Margaret Atwood, quoted in The Guardian: ’Wanting to meet a writer because you like their books is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté’ (MO/L2604).

Then there were the printed quotations collections. These are widespread in Britain, plentifully adorn the reference sections of libraries and large bookshops, and figure among many domestic holdings. Publishers can count on large sales, the most popular collections going through many successive editions. The expectation, at least as enunciated in publicity and prefaces, is that they will be well thumbed and regularly used for reference, crosswords, inspiration, or delight, a major source therefore, one might think, for the plentiful quoting of today[10]

The practice turned out more complex. On the one side, several commentators did indeed possess one or more quotations collections. The most frequently mentioned was the Oxford Dictionary of Quotation in one or another of its many editions but there were many others too. The longest list was from an illustrator and ex-academic (Fig. 2.4), but a few others also commented in such terms as

I may not use ’formal’ quotations very often, but oddly enough we do have quite a few books of quotations in the house – the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and several specialist ones to do with my partner’s field of work (he’s a writer, amongst other things). We find them very useful for things like cryptic crosswords, which surprisingly often rely on quotations – and they come in handy for audience participation in ’University Challenge’ (middle-aged voice-over artist from Hemel Hempstead, MO/G3423).

Fig. 2.4 A large collection of quotation books.
Illustrator and ex-academic from south east England (MO/L2604)
(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)

Some not only possessed one or more collections but consulted them, in some cases frequently. One stated purpose was to check a quotation’s author or wording. Crosswords were often mentioned, so too were finding quotations for setting quiz questions, creating publicity material, ideas for stories or book titles, or a message in a greetings card or letter. People searched collections for ideas for a formal speech, a wedding or work presentation, while a long-time member of a local debating society ’inevitably’ turned to his books of quotation ’to see what greater minds than mine have had to say on a particular motion. I’m rarely disappointed’. Collections were also browsed for personal enjoyment and inspiration, as with the retired nurse who had several collections bought during her 20s that she ’would enjoy reading again and again’. Several described being led on beyond their initial purpose: ’once one opens it, it is often hard to put down – one thing leads to another’ or, in a lengthier reflection,

I now have half a dozen [books of quotations] and invariably find that when I consult them, without fail I find myself some twenty minutes or so later, several pages further on and engrossed in what others have to say about a topic which has no relevance to what I was originally searching (MO/H2634).

All this suggests widespread active usage, and indeed this range of uses was borne out by the returns from the Oxford University Press online questionnaire on quotations dictionaries in 2006. But there was another side to it too. That same survey, completed by nearly 1500 people, found that nearly three-fifths did not own any dictionary of quotations at all. Similarly among the commentators from the mass observation panel very manyeither did not mention such collections at all or explicitly said they did not possess one. Sometimes this was because they preferred the internet; as one noted hard copy collections were unhelpful for rock lyrics and song lines. For another, published collections seemed unnecessary since ’proverbs and quotations get locked in our brains, so we don’t need books to learn them’.

A common reaction was ’I was going to say that I don’t have any books of quotations, then checked my bookshelves, I have two!’, while others thought they might perhaps have one somewhere but could not find it or remember last using it. Those who discovered they did possess one often explained they had got it as a school prize, inherited it or received it as a free gift. It had often been a present but seldom looked at: ’still in its wrapper’, ’I wouldn’t have bought [it] for myself’, and ’it’s the sort of thing that gets given’.

Many were in fact actively hostile to quotations collections and attributed disparaging motives to those who used them. ’To impress I should think. Politicians, poseurs, people who like to give an impression of being well read’; ’It’s a bit pretentious to look up a quotation so that you can use it when the occasion arises’; ’Surely people are capable of some original thoughts?’. Or again

I don’t own any books of quotations and I can’t really understand why people do. I suppose if you teach or are a student of certain subjects (e.g. history, literature) then you would use one. Also, I suppose people might like to learn quotes to impress like-minded people at dinner parties and such like (25 year-old secretary, MO/D3958).

Such reactions rightly remind us that the sheer fact of publication does not in itself prove usage or close acquaintance. It seemed that quotations collections were often regarded as prestigious and reputable valuables –good as a gift and (perhaps) symbol of the learned literary culture, but not of much direct use to the possessor. It is true that most commentators recognised the existence of such collections – in itself worth noting – and for some people they clearly did play a part in their active engagement with quotation. But for most people they certainly could not be assumed to take precedence over sources like the memories built up from school and later reading, material displays, individually constructed commonplace books, and echoed voices from the past charged with personal meaning.

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

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).[11]

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).[12]

Should I have put that in quotes?
(Retired senior business executive in cathedral city, southern England).[13]

What 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.

Signalling Quotation

How 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.

But 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.

Before 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 (…)

First, 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.

In 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>).

So 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Even 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.

It 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.

In 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.

Some 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)

Some 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).

A 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).

Others 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).

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

A 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).

Others 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).

And 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’.

Many 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).

There 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.

Quotation 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).

Quote 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).

That 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).

Several 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).

The 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.

The 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.

Some 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’.

The 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).

Such 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).

Again 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).

The 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).

Less 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’.

If 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.

One 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.

The 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.

When to Quote and How

In 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.

Here 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).

A 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).

Different 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).

One 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.

What 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).

Specific 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’.

Quoting 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).

What 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).

Conversational 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’.

Another 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).

A 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).

Proverbs 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).

Silent 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).

Quotations 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).

Many 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).

A 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).

Like 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).

Indirect 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).

Others’ 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.

Quotations 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.

And 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).

Quotations 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’.

Enjoyable 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!’.

Keeping 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).

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

And 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’.

People 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.

To Quote or Not to Quote

The 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.

One 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.

Certain 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’.

But 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’.

’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.

Sayings 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.

It 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’.

Amidst 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.

Many 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).

There 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.

Interwoven 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.[15] 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.

Some 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’.

Quoting 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).

Sometimes 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’.

Others 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).

The 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).

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

Others 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).

A 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).

This 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).

The 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).

Not 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.

Such 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’.

The 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).

As 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).

People 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).

Even 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.

The ’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).

Essentially 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).

The 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.

The 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’.

These 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’.

A 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).

For 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).

As 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’.

So 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.

So Why Quote?

What 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.

And 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.

It 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’.

It 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’.

But 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.

The 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.

The 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. Mass Observer MO/B1898 (for further information see following section, also Appendices).
  2. Mass Observer MO/W3816.
  3. On the ethnography of speaking and writing together with the general approach to methodology in this book see Appendix 1.
  4. Apart from a few periods abroad my home has been in Milton Keynes since 1969. My earlier research in the locality chiefly focused on amateur musical activities and, later, on personal narratives (Finnegan 1989/2007, 1998).
  5. 5 The Oxford University Press Modern Quotations Dictionaries Survey was conducted as part of the preparation for the 3rd edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (2007). It consisted of an online questionnaire which drew nearly 1500 respondents in 2006.
  6. See Appendix 2 for more information about members of the panel, also for further
  7. Throughout this and the following chapter all quotations, unless otherwise identified or clearly from some other source, are from members of the Mass Observation panel consulted in autumn 2006. Longer quotations, but not all short phrases, are attributed to specific authors under their code numbers (e.g. MO/S2207); for further detail on the individuals see Appendix 2.
  8. Conducted by the BBC and the Open University (http://www.open2.net/lennysbritain/aboutlennysbritain.html/ (24 Aug. 2009)); see also earlier Mass Observation directives (http://www.massobs.org.uk/index.htm), esp. Spring 2002 on ‘Having a laugh’.
  9. For a recent overview see Mieder 2004a, 2008, also further on proverbs in Chapter 6 below.
  10. This section, while relying primarily on qualitative comments from the mass observers, also draws on the 2006 OUP survey.
  11. MO/H1845.
  12. MO/M3190
  13. MO/B2240.
  14. 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.
  15. The main exception is the literature on ‘plagiarism’ and related concepts (see further in Chapter 8).

From Why Do We Quote? The History and Culture of Quotation (2011)