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"Quote-unquote," or when the written becomes the spoken

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In writing, punctuation makes it easy to see when the writer is quoting someone else. What's interesting is that we've figured out a way to incorporate that punctuation into our speech.

This week's topic comes from a listener who asked about saying "quote" before a quote and "unquote" at the end. He thinks "end quote" makes more sense than "unquote." While there's certainly an argument to be made about which closing is more logical, the truth is that "unquote" is now more popular than "end quote."

We can use "quote-unquote" in speech or written punctuation in a number of different ways. One example is scare quotes. A writer or speaker will use scare quotes when they want to make it clear that they're not responsible for a particular phrase.

For example, English Professor Anne Curzan might begin a language talk with something like, "Some people believe split infinitives are quote-unquote 'wrong.'" By using scare quotes, Curzan clarifies that she herself doesn't necessarily believe split infinitives are wrong.

We can also use "quote-unquote" when we're simply quoting what someone else said. For example, you might say, "She said, quote, 'It's not you, it's me,' unquote."

You'll notice in the second example, the words "quote" and "unquote" appear in different places in relationship to what's been quoted than in the previous example. Either way is acceptable. You can also say "quote-unquote" after the quoted material: "He said he couldn't come, because he was 'busy,' quote-unquote."

"What we're seeing here is a spoken feature that has developed from a written feature," says Curzan. "We're trying to take something we can do in writing and figure out a way to do it in speech."

Curzan searched Twitter to see how people are using "quote-unquote" in their Tweets. She found examples where people have actually written out "quote-unquote" for added emphasis. How do you use "quote-unquote?"

via GIPHY

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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