Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Meaning of the Word "Quotation"

A quotation is a fragment of a human expression that has been inserted into another human expression. It is most often a written or oral fragment and in such cases it is also called a quote. This latter type of quotation is almost always taken from literature, though speech transcripts, film dialogues, and song lyrics are also common and valid sources.

Besides this, a quotation can also refer to the use of a piece of other artistic works —elements of a painting, scenes from a movie or sections from a musical composition— into another one.

The rest of this article will deal only with written or oral quotations.

Quotation Classification

A typical, and perhaps ideal, quotation is usually short, concise and commonly only one sentence long. There are two broad categories which most quotations fall into, beauty and truth, although some quotations fit equally well into both these groups. 'Beautiful' quotations are words remembered for their aesthetically pleasing use of language, whereas many other quotations are remembered because they are thought to express some universal truth. These latter quotations are often called maxims or aphorisms and they are highly regarded for being pithy renderings of ideas that most people have but most have not been able to express so clearly. A third type of quotation may be any line which merely reminds the person who quotes it of a particularly memorable work, sometimes making a subtle comparison to the situation or topic at hand.

Reasons for using quotations

Quotations are used for a variety of reasons: to enrich, illuminate the meaning or support the arguments of the work it is being quoted in, to pay homage to the original work or author, to make the user of the quotation seem well-read and even to ridicule the original author.

Common quotation sources

Chiefly for reference and accuracy, famous quotations are frequently collected in books that are sometimes called quotation dictionaries or treasuries. On the other hand, diaries and calendars often include quotations for entertainment or inspirational purposes, and small, dedicated sections in newspapers and weekly magazines —with recent quotations by leading personalities on current topics— have also become commonplace.

Finally, as explained below, chiefly through the World Wide Web, the Internet has become the world's main quotation repository.


The art of quotation is fraught with difficulties. If the source of a quotation is not given it can lead readers to think that the author using the quotation originated the thought or that he is being dishonest. Some people are thought to have said certain things, but there is no evidence of these words in any of their surviving writings: when this is the case, the words have merely to be attributed to them. Many quotations are routinely incorrect or attributed to the wrong authors, and quotations from obscure writers are often attributed to far more famous writers by lax quoters. Good examples of this are Winston Churchill, to whom many political quotations of uncertain origin are attributed, and Oscar Wilde, who has said far more witty things than he possibly could.

Deliberate misquotation is very common either because the misquotation is better known than the original or simply because the misquotation fits the situation better. Possibly worse than misquotation is deliberate misinterpretation, where an author's words are taken out of context and are used to support a position or idea that the author would never have agreed with and was not the author's intention. This can be especially problematic with playwrights and authors of fiction who do not necessarily agree with the sentiments of their characters.

Quotations and the Internet

Chiefly a text medium in the beginning, the World Wide Web gave rise to any number of personal quotation collections that continue to flourish, even though very few of them seem to facilitate accurate information or correct citation. In June 27, 2003, a sister project of the Wikimedia Foundation called Wikiquote was created as a free online encyclopedia of quotations in every language and it is now the biggest single quote collection in the world.
Interestingly, the increase of written means of informal communication brought about by the Internet has produced the practice of using quotations as personal flags, as in one's own signature block. This is most commonly seen in email messages and Usenet posts, while is almost never seen in blog posts. Quotations are also popular as a user's personal message, a line under the user's nickname in some Instant Messaging clients (and here they often go uncited). In all these cases, quotations are usually included to give a glimpse of the user's personality, to make a statement of their beliefs, or just to spread their memes around.
The sheer bulk of online quotations, combined with ever more efficient search engines, has effectively made the Internet the world's quotation storehouse, encompassing an unprecedented amount of easily and immediately findable quotations. Though matters of accuracy still remain, innovative features such as's Search Inside the Book and Google Print may well serve to alleviate such concerns.



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