By Dr Oliver Tearle
Quotations are an important part of both speech and writing. They can be used to spice up (or pepper) conversation at dinner, or they can be used to add weight to a particular argument in a piece of writing. For Jorge Luis Borges, life itself was a quotation, as he put it (in a famous quotation).
‘If it were not for quotations,’ the great comic writer P. G. Wodehouse once observed, ‘conversation between gentlemen would consist of an endless succession of “what-ho”s!’
But what’s another way of saying ‘quotation’? How can we avoid overusing this one rather long, technical-sounding, and – let’s face it – somewhat clunky term? We’re here on hand to explore and introduce some of the best synonyms for ‘quotation’: words whose meanings closely approximate to that word.
Curiously, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations cites Ralph Waldo Emerson saying ‘I hate quotations’, but this is in fact a misquotation.
The closest match for quotation, and therefore the logical place to start with a list of synonyms, is the shortened or abbreviated version of quotation itself: QUOTE.
This word has been in use in English for a surprisingly long time. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites Cyril Tourneur’s poem The Transformed Metamorphosis (1600): ‘O were thy margents, cliffes of itching lust; / Or quotes to chalke out men the way to sinne.’
Here, ‘quotes’ is being used to refer to ‘marginal references’, as the word ‘margents’ and the use of the metaphorical ‘cliffes’ makes clear. But Randle Cotgrave’s 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues also included an entry for ‘quote’ as a noun – again, defining it as a ‘note upon an article’ rather than the repeating of somebody else’s words.
By 1885, ‘quote’ was being used as a straightforward synonym for, and abbreviation of, ‘quotation’, and given that its syllables are one-third the length of quotation it’s not hard to see why. Nevertheless, quote is generally still frowned upon in formal or written use, so is perhaps best reserved for colloquial settings.
CITATION is a much better synonym for use in formal writing. You can happily vary your use of quotation by switching between it and this similar-sounding word. Pleasingly, the Latin verb citāre, in addition to meaning ‘move’, ‘excite’, or ‘summon’ (e.g., a person to court), also meant ‘to quote (an author or text)’, so citation and quotation are pretty interchangeable.
As well as being a summons to court, then, a citation is the ‘summoning’ or calling up of another writer’s words into one’s own speech or piece of writing. However, people tend to use citation in more academic or polemical contexts: you’re calling up another person’s words not just because they’ve said something funny or memorable but because they, or what they’ve said, carries authority which can help further your own case.
If you’re not talking about academic writing, however, you might prefer the less technical (though not exactly informal) synonym LINE, as in ‘here’s a line from Oscar Wilde’ or ‘how does that Dorothy Parker line go?’ Line might be regarded as the halfway house between the colloquial quote and the (almost too formal) citation.
Of course, a quotation is a shorter piece of text usually quoted from a longer work. So, for instance, one might quote a line from the Bible, or a line from a T. S. Eliot poem, and so on. For this reason, other useful and acceptable synonyms for quotation might include EXCERPT and EXTRACT, which both convey this idea of a short section or PASSAGE taken from a longer piece of writing. The terms PIECE and PHRASE can also serve a useful synonymous function here, depending on the context.
Two other terms are worth mentioning here, and it’s also worth distinguishing between them. The first is REFERENCE. So, instead of talking about ‘a quotation from Shakespeare’, we might instead speak of ‘a reference to Shakespeare’, essentially reversing the direction of travel (it is you referring to Shakespeare rather than Shakespeare being quoted from). The meaning is the same, but the emphasis is placed, arguably, on the cleverness of the speaker in knowing Shakespeare’s works and being able to refer to them.
So one might say, ‘if I might be permitted a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I think that “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”’
This last line is a direct quotation from Hamlet, so it fits the bill for a reference: the speaker is referring to Shakespeare’s exact lines.
However, what if a speaker were to say, ‘when I heard the politician giving his speech and insisting on how moral his party is, I couldn’t help thinking that the minister does protest too much’?
That wouldn’t be quotation or reference, though it’s certainly similar to quotation in that Shakespeare’s line is being called up.
Instead, this would be an example of ALLUSION, a handy term which literally means ‘to call into play’, from the Latin ludus, ‘play’ (the board game Ludo literally means ‘I play’ in Latin, while an ‘interlude’ is a break in the middle of a play). Rather than quoting Shakespeare’s lines directly, the speaker is calling them up without explicitly naming their source. Instead, they’re relying on the reader or audience to recognise them and spot the allusion to Shakespeare.
An allusion, therefore, is often implied and indirect, rather than being spelt out and ‘labelled’ for the reader. It’s a different kind of quotation from direct citation or reference, but a useful synonym to have for this reason.
If we’re talking about a quotation in the business sense – that is, an insurance quotation, for instance – then useful synonyms include ESTIMATE (an estimate of the overall costs and charges accrued), a FIGURE, or indeed, just the PRICE, COST, or CHARGE.