Copyright © Norman Swartz 1997
This revision: September 27, 1997
Department of Philosophy
Simon Fraser University

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Use and Mention

These notes are excerpted from "Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meanings", copyright © Norman Swartz, 1997.


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. [Note 1] 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?

     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. [Note 2] Thus """science""" refers to ""science"" [Note 3] which in turn refers to "science" which in turn refers to science, and at this latter point the relation of referring terminates.

     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. [Note 4]

2.1  Iconographic and Non-iconographic Names

When we form the names of terms by quoting them, we form their names iconographically. We literally picture them. We place a picture of the term to be named within quotation marks. This is an extraordinarily useful technique. It allows us immediately to learn the referent of an iconographic name of a symbol (or word or expression) simply by inspecting that name itself. Consider, for example, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. In English, it has two names, an iconographic one (devised in accord with modern rules for quotation) and an ancient one inherited from times when iconographic names were not available in English. The two names (quotation marks omitted!) are:


By inspecting the iconographic name we can learn immediately what the term refers to. No amount of inspection of a non-iconographic term will ever reveal its referent. (Incidentally, we can see in this example another device for quoting, viz. placing the expression in a box. [Yet another technique is to set-off the expression on a separate line and indent it.] If these latter conventions were not available, then properly both of the examples just cited would themselves have had to have been enclosed in quotation marks.) Just to test yourself, try to see that the following claims are correct and accord with the conventions just discussed:

  1. In the expression ""Hi there"", there occurs only a single pair of quotation marks.

  2. However, in the expression """Hi there""", there occur exactly two pairs of quotation marks.

     This convention we have in English of forming the name of a term by the device of enclosing that term within quotation marks is just that, a convention. There is nothing sacred about it. We could if we wanted, agree to use some other device. If we were so inclined, we could agree that the name of George's name would be "Henry" instead of ""George"".

     There is a passage in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass where he chooses to use a nonstandard device for naming. At first what the Knight is saying to Alice may appear to be literal nonsense. But it is not; it is merely unconventional. However, in addition to adopting a nonstandard manner of naming, Carroll introduces the further complicating wrinkle of distinguishing between the name of an item and what that item is called. Normally we think of these as one and the same thing; persons and things tend to be called by their names. But not always. We do make a distinction between names and nicknames (i.e. what persons are called, if not by their names). For example, we might find ourselves saying, "His name actually is 'Richard', but he's called 'Dick'." [Note 5] When the Knight says (below) that the song is called (rather than named) "Ways and Means", he apparently means that this is the song's nickname. [Note 6] Finally, to make the passage as coherent as possible, we probably should want to understand the sentence "The song really is 'A-sitting On a Gate' " as the Knight's previewing a fragment (the fourth line) of the song that he is about to sing, rather than as an attempt at naming that song.

     "You are sad," the Knight said in an anxious tone: "let me sing you a song to comfort you."
     "Is it very long?" Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.
     "It's long," said the Knight, "but it's very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it —either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else —"
     "Or else what?" said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.
     "Or else it doesn't, you know. The name of the song is called 'Haddocks' Eyes.'"
     "Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?" Alice said, trying to feel interested.
     "No, you don't understand," the Knight said, looking a little vexed. "That's what the name is called. The name really is 'The Aged Aged Man.'"
     "Then I ought to have said 'That's what the song is called'?" Alice corrected herself.
     "No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called 'Ways and Means': but that's only what it's called, you know!"
     "Well, what is the song, then?" said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
     "I was coming to that," the Knight said. "The song really is 'A-sitting On A Gate': and the tune's my own invention."
     So saying, he stopped his horse and let the reins fall on its neck: then, slowly beating time with one hand, and with a faint smile lighting up his gentle foolish face, as if he enjoyed the music of his song, he began. ([1], Chapter VIII)
To sum up this passage: we have (1) the song itself ([part of which is] "... A-sitting On a Gate. ..."); (2) the (official) name, "The Aged Aged Man", of that song; (3) an (unofficial) nickname (i.e. what the song is called), "Ways and Means"; and finally (4) a nickname, "Haddocks' Eyes", of the name ("The Aged Aged Man").

     In the popular press – newspapers, magazines, etc. – writers and editors will often drop quotation marks, e.g.

"The word equality as used by Mr. Denktash is being misunderstood," responds Greek Cypriot president George Vassiliou. ([3], p. 20)
A strict use of quotations marks, as insisted upon by most writers in philosophy, would require:

"The word 'equality' as used by Mr. Denktash is being misunderstood," responds Greek Cypriot president George Vassiliou.
Philosophers, too, sometimes omit quotation marks. For example, John Stuart Mill writes: "Virtuous, for example, is the name of a class ..." ([2], Book I, Chap. II, §5). Or, again: "Snow, and other objects, receive the name white, because they possess the attribute which is called whiteness" (Ibid). In the latter sentence, Mill omits two sets of quotation marks: one on the word "white"; the other on the word "whiteness".

     The use/mention distinction (as it has come to be called) is of particular relevance in the theory of definitions. For when we give the definition of a term, we mention the term, we do not use it. For example, the term, "pain", is defined, but pain itself is not defined. We define only terms, never their referents.

2.2  Corner-quotes

(Optional advanced material – see "Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meanings".)


  1. A name is not essential. We can, of course, refer to the part, as I have just done, by description. We could refer to it as "the part in sentence 3 which occurs between the words 'word' and 'contains'".
    Resume 1 ]

  1. 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."
    Resume 2 ]

  1. It is common when using quotation marks inside of quotation marks, to switch the inner pair to single-quotes, e.g. "'science'". (See also footnote 25, for another example.) 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.
    Resume 3 ]

  1. 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. (See e.g. the quotation marks on the word "word" in footnote 25 below.) 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.
    Resume 4 ]

  1. In the Bible there is a recurring, odd, phrase: "... called the name ...". (See, e.g., Genesis 21:3: "And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac.") Today we would say (using quotation marks around the name) either "... called the child '...'" or "... named the child '...'".
    Resume 5 ]

  1. A genuine example of this distinction can be found in the case of Oscar Straus's operetta, The Chocolate Soldier. There is in that operetta a famous aria which many persons call "I Love You Only"; its actual name is, however, "My Hero".
    Resume 6 ]


  1. Carroll, Lewis (pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass [originally published 1865 and 1871 respectively], New American Library, New York, 1960.

  2. Mill, John Stuart, A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive [originally published 1843; 8th ed. 1872]. Reprinted by Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1965.

  3. Zintl, Robert T., "So Near and Still So Far", in Time (Sept. 16, 1991).