Use/Mention Distinction

excerpted from Norman Swartz (1997), "Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meanings."

  • 1. Science begins with curiosity.
  • 2. Science begins with the nineteenth letter of the English alphabet.

Sentence 1 is perfectly sensible (even if what it expresses may be false). But sentence 2 above is a piece of literal nonsense. It is not science itself which begins with a letter; rather it is the word, “science”, that begins with a letter. Sentence 2 should be repaired to read:

  • 1. “Science” begins with the nineteenth letter of the English alphabet.

To talk (in English) about science (as in sentence 1 above), we use the (English) word which refers to, or names, science, viz. the word comprised of the seven letters “s”, “c”, “i”, “e”, “n”, “c”, and “e”. But suppose we want to talk, not about science, but about that very word in English which we use to refer to science. Suppose we wanted to say of that word that it contains seven letters. We might write:

  • 3. The word “science” contains seven letters.

Or, again, suppose now (just to make life complicated) we wanted to talk about the part in sentence 3 which occurs between the words “word” and “contains” (viz. the part with the quotation marks). To talk about that part, we would like a name for it. What is the name for the linguistic part of sentence which consists of the nine items: a left-quotation mark, the letters “s”, “c”, “i”, “e”, “n”, “c”, “e”, and a right-quotation mark?

*Quotation marks, insofar as they are regarded as punctuation marks
– like commas, periods, semi-colons, etc. – are not spoken aloud. (More
exactly, they are not usually spoken aloud; Victor Borge has made a
living speaking pronunciation aloud as part of his stage performance.)
Thus it is rather clumsy in spoken English to create the names of words.
We have to take recourse to such awkward expressions as: “She knew that
quote mind unquote was not much used in his course.”

It is common when using quotation marks inside of quotation marks, to switch the inner pair to single-quotes, e.g. “‘science'”… In the U.K., the convention is often reversed from that most commonly used in North America. Many writers and editors in the U.K. will use single quotation marks for ‘outer’ quotation marks, and double quotation marks for ‘inner’ ones.

In the last few hundred years we have developed a technique (effective procedure) in written English (and in many other modern written languages) whereby we can simply and automatically generate the name of any term whatsoever. (Ancient languages lacked
this – or an equivalent – technique.) The modern convention in written
English for forming the name of a term is to enclose that term in quotation marks.* Thus “science” refers to “science” which in turn refers
to “science” which in turn refers to science, and at this latter point the
relation of referring terminates.

There is another, related, use of quotation marks among careful, serious writers. Sometimes writers will place (single) quotation marks around a word or a phrase to indicate that they are using the term in a specialized or idiosyncratic way… Such marks are often called “scare quotes”, “shudder quotes”, or “inverted commas”. Again, the convention is
often reversed in the U.K.: there the usual convention is to use double quotation marks for scare quotes.

When we use the name of a term in accordance with the just-reported convention we are said to be mentioning the term. We mention a term, by using its name, where its name is formed by enclosing the term in quotation marks. In the first sentence of this paragraph I used the term “accordance” and it occurred there without quotation marks. And in writing what I just have (in the third sentence of this paragraph) I mentioned the term “accordance” and it occurred there with quotation marks.