Verbalising one's punctuation

Published : Jul 21, 2001 00:00 IST


LIKE it or not, you are going to learn something today. Period.

That written sentence fragment, period, is another way of signalling "And that's that" or "So there." Writing the word period at the end of a sentence uses the name of a punctuation mark to emphasise the work of a punctuation mark; in this case, writing period stresses finality or inescapability.

Now take that trick a step further: Say the punctuation mark aloud. By using the mark in speech, you not only call attention to your oral emphasis, but you also make it possible to transcribe the word for that symbol to paper or to your computer screen, and lo! You have the "quote-unquote" phenomenon. The word for the thing becomes the thing itself. (The semanticist Korzybski would flip.)

Here's how it works. The NBC host Matt Lauer asks a guest, "What do people in Great Britain think about this journalist, or quote-unquote, journalist?" Or Rep. Bill Thomas of California tells a television interviewer, "There are other ways to get tax relief, not just within, quote-unquote, the president's plan." These usages of verbalised punctuation are sometimes accompanied by "air quotes", a visual signal of wiggling two fingers on each hand (recalling to some geezers the victory sign of a departed President).

The meaning of the spoken or written quote-unquote (wiggle, wiggle) is "so-called", casting aspersion on the word or phrase that follows. In American English, however, so-called is falling into disuse; it has the flavour of usage by speakers whose English is a second language. Quote-unquote - as a complete phrase, not separated by the words quoted - is now our primary derogator. A sneer is built in.

The joyously anti-capital poet Edward Estlin Cummings (who styled himself e.e. cummings, "with up so floating many bells down") pioneered the use of the verbalised mark in 1935. Few students of the third-person singular of the state of being will forget his stunning "The Isful ubiquitous wasless&-shallbeless quote scrotumtightening unquote omnivorously eternal" etc. Were that being written today, e.e.'s poetic formulation, if he thought it scanned, would be "quote, unquote scrotumtightening."

The New York Times' recording room has rules for those of us who have to phone in our copy when modems fail. "Say 'period,' 'comma' and all other punctuation," Chris Campbell inst-ructs. "Never say 'quote-unquote' unless that's exactly what you want transcribed. Say 'open quote' before the quoted material and 'close quote' after it. At the end of a paragraph, say 'graf' or 'new graf'."

Thus, I would dictate the Bible's opening as "Cap I In the beginning no comma cap G God created the heaven and the earth period new graf cap A And the earth was without form comma and void semicolon and darkness begin itals was unitals upon the face of the deep period." (I don't know why the second was is in italics, but that's how the King James Version has it.)

In the heyday of network radio (comma? Yes, after two prepositional phrases) the two words were fused to be used before the quotation. "In the 1940s, the words quote and unquote were used frequently on the radio," the lexicographer David Guralnik told me long ago. "There had to be some method of separating the words of the announcer and the person quoted. The problem came with short quotations: 'The President said, quote, Nuts, unquote.' It worked much better to say, 'The President said, quote-unquote, Nuts'."

Ronald Reagan popularised that device in his speeches in the 1980s, deriding "quote-unquote tax reforms". But copy editors soon began adopting a variant: quote-endquote, hyphenated and with the un changed to end and sometimes placed after the quoted term.

Georgia's Democratic Senator, Zell Miller, was quoted in The New York Times a month ago saying, "I was hurt and mad at some longtime friends, quote-endquote, who had been so loud and harsh and vehement in their criticism about my doing the tax cut and Ashcroft."

Some users are going all the way to quotes before the quotation, leaving out the un or end and relying on speech inflection to indicate the quotation's end. This won't work in print. As my editor says, quotes, it's confusing and I'd better not do it and at this point you don't know whether I'm quoting him or me.

My solution: For plain quotation with no sneer intended, go back to "He said, quote, those were the days, unquote." Specifically for casting aspersion - heaping ridicule on what follows - it's O.K. in informal use to write or say "what some pluralising people like to call quote-unquote aspersions."

WHEN a person's name turns into a word, that's called an eponym, from the Greek epi, "upon", and onyma, "name".

The University of California at Santa Barbara had a panel about the media (from the Greek for "really high-class buncha guys"). When CNN's Jeff Greenfield assured the crowd, "I haven't planted a skutnik here," I stopped him: I had heard of a sputnik, the Russian word for the first Soviet satellite, but what was a skutnik?

Greenfield directed me to his book Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow! about the media failure on election night: "A skutnik is a human prop, used by a speaker to make a political point. The name comes from Lenny Skutnik, a young man who heroically saved lives after the Air Florida plane crash in Washington in 1982 and who was introduced by President Reagan during his State of the Union speech."

The introduction of heroes became a staple in presidential addresses to joint sessions of Congress. In 1995, the columnist William F. Buckley was one of the first to use the name as an eponym: "President Clinton was awash with Skutniks."

The play on sputnik aside, the word should be spelled Skutnik in deference to the original honoree. Watch for one the next time around.

New York Times Service
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment