In a sentence like His name is Joseph, but you can call him Joe the names Joseph and Joe are not used 'referentially' (to name a certain male individual) but just 'mentioned', i.e., they are used 'metalinguistically' to refer to themselves. Otherwise, of course, such sentences would be nonsensical, as Quine explained long ago, and, for that reason, I instinctively enclose them in quotation marks whenever I have to write sentences like that.

Yet, as far as I know, at least in English (but also in Spanish, German, French, Italian,... Mandarin) they are not orthographically treated as metalinguistic expressions at all. I mean, they are never enclosed in quotation marks or otherwise marked as cases of 'mention' rather than ordinary referential 'use', are they? Does anybody know why? Are there languages out there in which parallel names in equivalent sentences would be orthographically marked, via quotation marks or similar devices, as cases of metalinguistic, rather than ordinary referential use?

  • When I imagine hearing your example in a real conversation, I think I would be able to tell who you were talking about. So you must have used an expression to refer, and it can't all be about mentioning. – Greg Lee Feb 26 '15 at 22:00
  • The point is that unless "Joseph" and "Joe" are metalinguistically used, "His name is Joseph" and "You can call him Joe" are logically incoherent expressions. Of course, the speech context will help the hearer determine who "His" and "him" refer to, as happens with personal pronouns generally, but that is irrelevant here. Obviously, "His" and "him" are 'used' to refer to a male individual, but "Joseph" and "Joe" cannot be so used, or a logical 'category mistake' will condemn the sentence to semantic incoherence. – Sibutlasi Feb 27 '15 at 9:16

In Sanskrit, there is a quotative particle iti, which you would use in something like "he is known as Bhagavān", "he is called Bhagavān", which seems to be along the lines of what you're looking for.

This also happens in Shona and some other African languages, and there's a book on the topic, Quotative Indexes in African Languages: A Synchronic and Diachronic Survey by Tom Güldemann, which mentions other languages with this construction.

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  • Thank you! but where would the "iti' particle appear in such a sentence? Can it be directly associated with the name "Bhagavan", say as a syntactic suffix (or maybe prefix), or must it be associated with the Sanskrit verb "call"? In the first case it would obviously play a very similar role to our use of quotation marks. In the second, I am not so sure... Could it work as a 'selection' marker focused on the appropriate complement? – Sibutlasi Feb 27 '15 at 9:02
  • "iti" comes at the end of any literal material, so it would be right after the name. – user6726 Feb 27 '15 at 16:42


They're not marked because there is no need for them to be: in ordinary discourse, there is no ambiguity and no practical likelihood of misunderstanding.

Writing is a technology with a complex mixture of motivated and arbitrary features; but the use-mention distinction is one that has rarely been marked in writing, especially in languages where it is not made in speech.

Other languages

Japanese has a "quotative" particle to; but what it follows is not necessarily a literial quotation, so the particle might be thought of as encoding "mention".

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  • 1
    The problem with your 'explanation' is that in certain cases we observe rigid conventions to mark off 'direct speech' or 'metalinguistic' use. In <<"Wait a minute", he said>>, there is no risk of misunderstanding, but we still use orthography to mark "Wait a minute" as naming an actual linguistic expression. And, of course, if we are discussing linguistic expressions, we always indicate the fact (via italics, quotation marks, etc.). On the other hand, ARE THERE ANY languages in which "Joseph" WOULD be marked in SPEECH as 'mentioned', rather than referentially used, in "His name is Joseph"? – Sibutlasi Mar 2 '15 at 10:27

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