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Using the words of others

I find myself quoting other people’s words a lot (if you hadn’t noticed from my first two tries at this whole blogging thing) — when I speak to others, when I write to others, when I write in my journal.

Why do I do this, and why does anyone? How and why, exactly, does using a quote really add to your own personal expression of the very same point?

(Incidentally, FYI — I will hereby publicly succumb to the common usage of “quote” as a noun… for a long time, in my steady defense of proper English, I had maintained that “quote” was a verb, and “quotation” the noun form, but this seems to be one of those situations where colloquial usage is just determined to trump, so I will lay down my sword…)

Some of my random top of mind thoughts, some possibilities, at least…

Part of the urge to quote others, at least sometimes, is surely just that someone else “said it BETTER” — you just love the way they put it, the sheer aesthetics of their words, and so you want to use their words to express what you mean more artfully than you think you could yourself.

I think we also, of course, often turn to quotes as an appeal to some sense of quality and/or authority. If a published author, or topical expert, or simply a well-known public figure, has said something that corroborates what you are trying to say, then citing them will add some weight, in the eyes of others, to what you are saying. The power of turning to “famous” people to back up what you are saying is of course a key element in our overall social system for the production of knowledge, “expertise,” and quality hierarchies — from ranked educational institutions to exclusive awards, peer-reviewed publications, websites that rank and compare bloggers, the art critic industry, and so on. Quality and expertise are every bit as socially-produced as the perceived value of a company on the stock market…we live in one big jury of our peers, at all times.

The urge to quote probably also, at least partially, comes from some sort of deep-seated reverence, even for the most secular among us, for the “sanctity of the written word” — especially the ancient written word… the older the better. Somehow, words seem to gain more authority with time… as if, if they seem to still apply now, and someone said it way back then too, surely there must be at least some “truth” in them, or so the typical reader might feel.

I also think, importantly, that in quoting someone or something DISTANT in time, you enable your readers to imbue that historical “voice” with all sorts of authority, mystique, or insight that they probably won’t and don’t attribute to just YOU, whom they happen to know personally is just a random punk pundit, speaking up all the time about things you know nothing about… :)

And when it comes to using quotes for personal, self-expression (vs. for a logical argument), I think they can serve yet another function, too: they can expand the range of possible interpretation for what you are saying, thus expanding the range of possible connection with another person.

You can send a quote to someone, with some sense in your head of why you like it, find it meaningful, are choosing to share it… but there is no way of knowing exactly how your reader will actually interpret it. You enable your reader to make his own guess about why you chose to share a particular phrase, what meaning it might have for you, what you are trying to “say” by sharing it. Your reader is free to interpret you, via the intermediary of the quote, in the way that most allows them to find a connection with you, a point of presumed understanding. Obviously, this is true of language in general, as all words have different meanings for different people, but I think that quoting entire phrases written by others allows you to reach even further beyond yourself than usual, to further expand the possible range of connection. Which I think is kinda cool.

Of course, I really should be signing off with a particularly fantastic quote, but for once, I don’t have one to offer. If anyone else has a great quote about quoting, by all means, do let me know. :)

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