The Grammarphobia Blog

Cite lines

Q: I was surprised to see “cite” used as a noun in your recent posting about the word “anachronism.” Am I behind the curve? I hope not. I wouldn’t want to see this become standard. I expected to see “citation,” but would have preferred “example.”

A: We do indeed use “cite” every once in a while on our blog when we tire of “citation,” “example,” “reference,” “instance,” “quotation,” etc. As a reader of the blog, you’re aware that we do a lot of citing!

Yes, the word “cite” is a bit jargony, but it’s common among linguists, etymologists, and other language types.

The two standard dictionaries we use the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—don’t have entries for “cite” as a noun.

But the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for the noun and considers it standard English. In fact, the OED lists more than half a century of published references for “cite” used as a shortened form of “citation.”

The usage has been particularly handy in legal and academic writing, where authors frequently have to cite cases and references. (Yikes! This is probably the first time we’ve ever defended a usage by citing legal and academic writing.)

The first example given in the OED is from a 1957 issue of the Atlantic Reporter, a regional case-law publication: “The Legislature in 1951 passed the Police Tenure Act, (cite. omitted).”

Note that the term first appeared with a period, a clear indication that the editors considered it an abbreviation. But subsequent examples in the OED dispense with the period.

Here’s a 1975 cite from Bookletter, a New York literary periodical that was once published by Harper’s: “He has personally collected a file of over 250,000 cites.”

Here another usage, from the Yale Law Journal (1998): “First a cite to Morrall, then a cite to the source citing Morrall, and so on until the connection to Morrall is forgotten.”

This abbreviation was probably inevitable, given that the noun “quote”—short for both “quotation” and “quotation mark”—has been around since the 19th century. We touched on this issue in a posting a couple of years ago.

In short, the use of “cite” as a noun, short for “citation,” has been around for more than half a century and it’s certain to last. So you might as well make your peace with it.

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