Their Words In My Words
Or, “What it means to me”
In this blog post, I will attempt to share some of my current thoughts and related ideas on “quotations”.
“Quotation, n: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.” -Ambrose Bierce in “The Devil's Dictionary” (1906)
“[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business." -A.A. Milne in “If I May” (1921)
“I always have a quotation for everything—it saves original thinking.” -Lord Peter Wimsey in “Have His Carcase” (1932) by Dorothy Sayers
“A fine quotation is a diamond in the hand of a man of wit and a pebble in the hand of a fool.” -Joseph Roux
“Quote me as saying I was mis-quoted.” -Groucho Marx
Communication is tricky business. It is used, among other things, to transfer and share ideas between people. And while it often succeeds, it frequently fails, too. Effective communication can be so difficult that I sometimes think it is almost miraculous. Considering all the things that could potentially go wrong, the fact that anyone can ever communicate with anyone else is amazing!
But of course, we can and do communicate all the time and in many different ways. Of the myriad ways we can communicate, personally I prefer metaphors and analogies (explaining an idea from one context in another context), paraphrasing (re-explaining an idea using different words), asking (seeking clarification of an idea through questioning), and even illustrating (making an idea clearer by use of images). Each of these ways can help facilitate effective communication.
But one of my most favorite ways to effectively transfer and share ideas is by using quotations (informally and commonly referred to as “quotes”) – “a group of words taken from a text or speech and repeated by someone other than the original author or speaker”.
Quotations are often used to quickly and easily present some particular idea in a pithy (full of concentrated meaning; concise; succinct) way. Quotations can be an impactful way of conveying a lot of meaning with just a few words. However, quotations can be (and, in my experience, often are) misused and have limitations.
One problem with quotations is that they are sometimes offered merely as an “Appeal to Authority”. An “Appeal to Authority” is a logical fallacy (an error in reasoning that renders an argument invalid) that occurs when writers or speakers claim that something must be true only because it is believed by someone who is said to be an "authority" on the subject. Whether the person is actually an authority or not, the logic is unsound. Instead of presenting actual evidence, the argument just relies on the credibility of the "authority." In other words, believing a quotation to be sound simply because of the source is illogical. That said, a quotation is not an “Appeal to Authority” when all sides of a discussion agree on the reliability of the authority in the given context.
Another problem with quotations is that they can be seen as an “Appeal to Emotion”, another logical fallacy. An “Appeal to Emotion” is when a speaker intends to manipulate the recipient’s emotions, often with persuasive language, in order to persuade or convince them and win an argument, usually in the absence of factual evidence. That said, sometimes a quotation does elicit emotions that are reasonable and warranted.
In My Experience, another problem with quotations is that they are often offered without any further consideration or explanation. Speakers frequently offer quotes without also presenting their own interpretation of the quote; without also explaining what the quote means to them; without also justifying why the quote is important, relevant, or useful in the given context. Without thinking for themselves. This puts the onus of understanding fully on the recipient.
And this problem is beautifully (unexpectedly? Ironically!) captured in a quote from an animated children’s television show, “The Amazing World of Gumball” (season 5, episode 3 titled “The Guy”) by a character named Anais Watterson:
"He who only speaks in quotes often forgets to think for himself."
Although Anais Watterson is a fictional, animated character, her words originate from a real, human writer. And, in my experience, even though “The Amazing World of Gumball” is ostensibly intended for kids, the writing and humor is frequently smart, clever, and decidedly adult.
And, I love this quote because it makes explicit an idea and feeling I’ve had for a while. And, it is extremely relevant to this blog post!
To me, that quote means, “Attempting to communicate solely with the words of others, without also considering the idea ourselves, can be problematic”. Why? Because simply quoting others without further consideration or explanation might be a logical fallacy (an “Appeal to Authority” and/or an “Appeal to Emotion”) and might be insufficient to effectively communicate the intended idea.
Sometimes, some quotes can stand alone and do not require any additional elucidation. Sometimes, it is completely reasonable to expect a particular idea to be effectively communicated via a quotation that is unaccompanied by additional reflection.
But sometimes a quotation is made more impactful and useful with further consideration and explanation (as above with the quote by Anais Watterson). Sometimes, after I offer a quotation, I also try to:
explain why I think the source of the quote is a reliable authority in the given context
express how the quote makes me feel and why
present my interpretation of the quote
explain what the quote means to me
justify why I think the quote is important/relevant/useful in the context
Doing these things can help facilitate more effective communication.
And so, although quotations might have some problems and limitations, when used properly they can be a very effective way of transferring and sharing an idea.
In My Words
“We ought never to be afraid to repeat an ancient truth, when we feel that we can make it more striking by a neater turn, or bring it alongside of another truth, which may make it clearer, and thereby accumulate evidence.” -Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues
In My Experience, considering and explaining a famous, notable quote In My Words helps me better understand the subject at a broader and deeper level, and helps me more effectively communicate an intended idea to others, as well.