The Grammarphobia Blog

Quotable and unquotable

Q: Is “unquote” proper in the expression “quote, unquote.” I hate it. Please tell me it should be “end quote.” Why would you want to unquote something that you’ve bothered to quote!

A: The expression “quote … unquote,” also written as “quote-unquote” or “quote, unquote,” has been in use for almost 100 years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The wording is “used in actual and reported speech to represent the beginning of a passage that one is quoting or purporting to quote,” the OED explains. The usage represents “opening and closing quotation marks around the quoted word or phrase.”

The first published citation listed is from a December 1918 article in a Connecticut newspaper, the Bridgeport Telegram: “Title of picture to be quote Watchful Waiting unquote.”

The OED also cites a 1921 reference from the Chicago Daily Tribune: “I knew her when she was a quote bear unquote period.” (Actually, that passage ought to read: “quote bear period unquote” but never mind!)

Although the early citations generally have “quote” before the quoted material and “unquote” after it, the entire phrase (“quote, unquote” or “quote-unquote”) is now often used in front of the quoted information.

Here’s an OED example of this front-loaded variation, from Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (2001), a collection edited by Tony Medina and Louis Reyes Rivera: “Occupation: jazz musician. Has clippings in pocket as quote-unquote proof.”

This information comes within the OED‘s entry for “quote” as a verb. The dictionary also lists “quote” as a noun meaning a quotation or a quotation mark (mostly in the plural).

Many usage experts frown on using “quote” as short for “quotation” or “quotation mark,” but these usages have been popular since the 1880s.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.