On the use of Quotation Marks

by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

DEC 29, 1992
Revised Oct 21, 1993

Published in
Etc: A Review of General Semantics,
Vol. 51 No 1, Spring 1994

I have found in formal writings that philosophers, linguists, and mathematicians share a very specific convention regarding the use of single quotation marks -- one that differs from the convention adopted by the General Semantics Bulletin. Such conventions serve as the mechanism by which time-binding operates. Time-binding is more effective when a single system of notation is used; this is so because there is no need to translate between systems. I urge that general semanticists adopt the majority convention so as to remain consistent with the greater community of which we are a part.

Let's look at the origin of the majority convention. In normal usage terms are not quoted; (double) quotation marks are used to indicate what someone else said (or wrote). When it is necessary to talk about the words themselves, Philosophers, linguists, and mathematicians use single quotation marks. This is called mentioning the words and is contrasted with using them. In addition to mention and using terms, Gottlob Frege distinguished what is now called the sense of a term. (1)

First I will illustrate the use-mention distinction. The formal version of the standard example I use goes:

In this sentence, the first instance of the word 'word' is used while the second instance is mentioned.

In this example the function of indicating that the second instance is to be taken as mentioned is redundant. The first instance of 'word' clearly directs the attention of the reader to the word itself as apposed to what the word refers to. Other words, for example, 'term', 'phrase', etc., would also serve this same purpose. The presence of such an indicator term makes the single quotations about the term that follows redundant. There is, I believe, an informal convention that permits deleting the single quotation marks when such an indicator term is present. The informal version of the standard example I use goes:

In this sentence, the first instance of the word word is used while the second instance is mentioned.

Let me give examples using some other word -- 'red'.

I like red. [the color] Used
I like 'red'. [the word] Mentioned by quotes
I like the word red. Mentioned by 'word'

The use and mention of a term may also be distinguished from the sense of a term. Frege identified this third function for terms. His contribution comes from showing that use and mention alone are not enough to prevent paradoxes in arguments using quotations. Frege noted that the morning star (Phosphorus) is not the evening star (Hesperus) even though they are the same planet -- Venus. The phrase 'the morning star' refers to the same celestial body that the phrase 'the evening star' refers to, but when we speak of them we often mean something different; we mean something like "the appearance of a star in the morning" and "the appearance of a star in the evening". For this function of a term or phrase Frege proposed the term 'sense'. A "sense" of a term is neither the term itself (the term mentioned) nor its referent (the term used). When philosophers wish to emphasize that a term may be being "used" in some non-standard sense, they put double quotation marks about it -- what we call "scare quotes". Of course, I believe it is also a convention that once the particular sense of a term is established in a given context, the scare quotes may be deleted for subsequent uses of the term in that context. Scare quotes derive from quoting another person who may not be using a term in the conventional or correct way.

Here are examples of each in the context of a little story. There are 4 people in the story. Bert, Ernie, John, and Mary. John and Mary are married. Bert doesn't know Mary's husband's name, but he isn't about to say so, so he picks the name 'Pete' to talk about Mary's husband. The following conversation illustrates the differences.

1. Bert: "Pete went to pick up Mary."
2. Ernie: "Who's Pete?"
3. Bert: "Mary's husband."
4. Ernie: "Mary's husband is John."
5. Bert: "Mary's not married to Pete?"
6. Ernie: "Mary's husband's name is 'John'".
7. Bert: "Oh."

In (1) Bert used the name 'Pete' to refer to John, but the sense Bert had in mind was "Mary's husband". He might have said, "Mary's husband went to pick up Mary." In (4) Ernie mentions John by using his name. In (6) Ernie mentions John's name. Talk about what the word refers to is using the word; talk about the word itself is mentioning the word; talk about what the word means other than these two is talk about a sense of the word. When Bert spoke the name 'Pete' in (1) he was not using it; nor was he mentioning the name 'Pete'. Ernie was talking about John, but he had been thinking something like "Mary's husband" when he said 'Pete'. Abbott and Costello's "Who's on first" has lots of fun with this. The sense of the names chosen overpowers the denotation, and no use-mention indicators are provided.

I find the convention of double quotation marks for scare quotes and single quotation marks for terms mentioned to be fairly standard in the academic writings of philosophy, linguistics and mathematics. But the General Semantics Bulletin has adopted the use of single quotes to function as the extensional device to indicate that the word may not be being used in the conventional sense -- scare quotes. By so doing the Bulletin has adopted a standard which conflicts with the standard use in formal and technical writings in the greater culture. This requires a form of translation and is inefficient for time-binding.

I urge the adoption of the standard convention within the general semantics community. If we are "to be" effective time-binders, we ought to use the symbols that are in use by the vast majority of people who formally talk about language and its use. We would then be consistent with the majority convention.


1. Gottlob Frege, On Sense and Nominatum, in Language Meaning and Truth. (return)

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