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Quotable Quotes, or is it Quotations?
July 26, 2012
If you are someone who feels strongly that writers should use the noun quotation in formal prose, rather than the newer noun quote, should you be feeling concerned about this? If you are someone who never thinks about (or even notices) whether writers use the noun quotation versus the noun quote, should you be thinking more about this?
I have thought about this specific (and now arguably esoteric) usage question in two different roles: (a) as a copy editor, who co-edited an academic journal for nine years; and (b) as a linguist, who is queried about changes in usage.
Being the highly detail-oriented (read: compulsive) copy editor I am, I faced the decision of whether to change the author's use of quote to quotation in numerous articles for the journal. While I use the noun quote often, in both speech and writing, I know there are folks out there who don't like it. So, do I risk that some readers will think the journal has a sloppy copy editor who didn't catch this "mistake" of using quote as a noun, or do I cater to the readers who have not yet accepted this change in the language and put in quotation?
Can I Quote You on That?
If you look up the word quote in the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2002), you will find the following usage note:
"People have been using the noun quote as a truncation of quotation for over 100 years, and its use in less formal contexts is widespread today. Language critics have objected to this usage, however, as unduly journalistic or breezy. As such, it is best avoided in more formal situations. The Usage Panel, at least, shows more tolerance for the word as the informality of the situation increases. Thus, only 38 percent of panelists accept the example He began the chapter with a quote from the Bible, but the percentage rises to 53 percent when the source of the quotation is less serious: He lightened up his talk by throwing in quotes from Marx Brothers movies."
According to the Usage Panel, therefore, I should change it—or, at least, according to the Usage Panel as surveyed before 2002.
In 2005 I was asked to join the Usage Panel, and now I am surveyed along with the other 200 or so members about such usage questions—including, in 2009, the issue of quote versus quotation. I thus had the power to sway the vote that might dictate other copy editors' decisions about whether to change quote to quotation.
How, then, do I make the call when American Heritage sends me a survey with questions about changes in usage, such as whether to accept the sentence, "He began the chapter with a quote from the Bible." I have my personal experience to work with: I have been known to use the noun quote, and I encounter it in contexts from informal speech to academic writing. But all of that feels a bit anecdotal.
So I turn to online linguistic corpora (electronic databases), such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), to see what a range of writers and speakers are doing with the language. A quick search of COCA using phrases such as "a quote/quotation" and "the quote(s)/quotation(s)" reveals the noun quote is over four times more frequent than the noun quotation overall, including spoken language, fiction, magazines, newspapers, and academic prose. When I isolate academic prose, I find the noun quote looks healthy there: 76 uses of "a quotation" and 74 uses of "a quote." (There is one instance of "a quote" to refer to the price of a stock or commodity, which is not included in the count.)
Searches of the Corpus of Historical American English and of the Google Books Ngram Viewer show the use of phrases such as "a quote" gaining traction in the 1950s and taking off in the 1970s in written American English.
The Vote is In
Given this information, we could and should ask: Isn't it time for the Usage Panel, which serves as a gatekeeper when it comes to the acceptance of changes in the language, to accept this now-common usage and allow writers and speakers to use the noun quote—which isn't even all that new (the Oxford English Dictionary has citations back to 1888)—without fear of judgment, even in formal prose? My answer, which probably is not a surprise to you at this point in the column: Yes. I voted "acceptable" for all sentences using quote as a noun.
It turns out that I was not alone. When the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language came out in 2011, the usage note on quote was updated: In the 2009 survey, 80 percent of the Usage Panel voted "acceptable" for both the sentence with a quote from the Bible and the sentence with quotes from Marx Brothers movies. (Only 60 percent accepted quote used to mean "a saying or dictum.")
So if you're a quote rather than a quotation user, the Usage Panel now has your back. And that's a quote.
is Professor of English Language and Literature and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor. She also has faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.