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In the following quote, it seems (to me at least) quite difficult to figure out what exactly is being quote:

“The best cure—quote, unquote—for aging is slowing disease,” Daniel Kraft, the chair of [...]

My questions are the following:

  1. Isn't it better English to write (and say): "The best cure—quote— for aging—unquote— is slowing disease.”
  2. How did the usage of "quote, unquote" come to be? In French, people say "ouvrir les guillemets" then "fermer les guillemets" (literally open/close quotes) which better delimits what is quoted.

By the way, I am surprise that this question hasn't been asked already: did I not enter to appropriate search terms?

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as an aside, both ways are seen in English speech; e.g. "I read his quote 'manifesto' unquote" and "I read his quote-unquote 'manifesto'" are both heard and recognized. – Mike Edenfield Sep 23 '13 at 14:50
The current "quote-unquote" likely comes from the idea of a "quote-on-quote" (that is, a 'metaquote'; the phrase is now considered bad grammar in favor of "quote-unquote"). This original phrase got confused around later by speakers of other languages, who maintained the word order of the original construct, but mistook 'on' as negating the second quote. – AJMansfield Sep 23 '13 at 15:29
@AJMansfield: Hadn't heard of that etymology before. Can you cite any sources? – LarsH Sep 23 '13 at 18:06
In French "entre guillemets" is also used and would better fit this example. – Marc Sep 24 '13 at 9:05
For what it's worth, in the example I think Kraft was indicating scare quotes for “cure” – quote–unquote sometimes follows a phrase instead of preceding it. – Bradd Szonye Sep 25 '13 at 2:54

5 Answers 5

up vote 35 down vote accepted

Unlike the earlier reply, I would interpret that sentence with the quotes around "cure". I think they were probably added as an afterthought, after cure had been uttered, to indicate that it was not really a cure that was being described.

It is unclear what is intended when the quote...unquote are adjacent, but it is often used that way. I would try to avoid the ambiguity, and, as you suggest, speak the punctuation in the correct places.

This construction would not be used in writing, unless reporting verbatim on a speech. It can also be "signed" with the fingers when talking face-to-face.

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I'd agree. The "quote, unquote" here seems to me to be implying sarcasm, that the "cure" being described is not a very good cure. The speaker seems to imply that the idea of slowing disease as a cure for aging is silly and wouldn't work. Though that's a good deal of assumption without more context. – KenB Sep 23 '13 at 17:55
I agree that "quote, unquote" here applies to the word "cure". But I don't think it signals sarcasm exactly. Rather, it points out that the word is to be taken advisedly; e.g. that there is no true cure for aging (nothing that will completely get rid of aging), but the closest thing to what we could call a cure is slowing disease. – LarsH Sep 23 '13 at 18:08
Like Mr. Shiny said, I have often heared (only in spoken english) the "quote, unquote" before the quoted word(s). Assuming the quote refers to a spoken sentence, I would guess that the speaker realized that "cure" was not the most appropriate word only after saying it, and immediately patched: this might have been clear from intonation and inter-words pauses. – Davide Jun 5 at 19:54

In English, people more commonly put the "quote unquote" before the item that is to be quoted. However, your example seems to put it after what is being quoted. This is meant to say that slowing disease doesn't really cure aging. You will still age even if you have no diseases. Therefore it isn't a cure, but a "cure".

Here are some quote unquote quotes from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

That being said, he clearly has his eye on the, quote unquote, " business plan "


" It's all based in some sense on their quote unquote 'moral authority,' " said Douglas Muzzio, a Baruch College public affairs professor

Associated Press

It's typically used only in spoken language because in writing you can use actual quotes. So even though it might be more logical to say "quote blah blah unquote" or some other variation, people tend to be speaking informally when they use it.

Etymology Online says this about "unquote":

1935, from un- (2) + quote (v.). Originally (obviously) in speaking; first written record is in a letter of e.e. cummings.

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I'm not really in agreement with some of the other responses so perhaps this is an informal or slang English that can be interpreted multiple ways. That said, I would interpret:

“The best cure—quote, unquote—for aging is slowing disease,” Daniel Kraft, the chair of [...]

to mean that the word "cure" is being used in a way that is perhaps not technically correct. In this example the reason for that is that there is no "cure" to aging. Not only is aging not really a disease which could have a cure, even if it were there is not anything that does actually cure aging.

There are multiple reasons for using quotations. One use is for referencing a word or sentence that was written or said before, like I just did in the above paragraph.

Another common usage is to convey uncertainty, skepticism, or sarcasm about the quoted material. This has even become part of spoken English, where people will make "air quotes" using their fingers to convey the same kind of meaning used in writing. Hesitant as I am to cite to Urban Dictionary, it seems relevant here. Air quotes.

Using quotes for skepticism and ambiguity is similar, but the context indicates that in your example it was probably more uncertainty. That's because it appears that the speaker was making an argument and it would be counterproductive to express skepticism about something you are simultaneously arguing for. If the context seemed critical it might be sarcasm. In short, you can't understand the usage of quotes in this type of circumstance unless you can understand the context.

And how did it come to be? I don't know, probably by an evolutionary or iterative path like any slang. There are other phrases that it could have evolved from, such as "And I quote, ..." or " quote, 'I despise grammar,' end quote." In particular I suspect the latter, which is fairly wordy and clunky, simply got abbreviated to "quote, 'I despise grammar,' unquote." Then it later took on the other meanings I described above and became an adjective rather than oral punctuation.

The OED gives some examples that might back this up:

Used in actual and reported speech to represent the beginning of a passage that one is quoting or purporting to quote; freq. in quote..unquote (also quote-unquote, quote, unquote, etc.) (representing opening and closing quotation marks around the quoted word or phrase).

1918 Bridgeport (Connecticut) Telegram 11 Dec. 2/3 Title of picture to be quote Watchful Waiting unquote.

1921 Chicago Tribune 6 July 19, I knew her when she was a quote bear unquote period.

Then by 1992 we see:

1992 New Scientist 19 Sept. 14/2 The most serious land reclamation problems in Wales are lands which have already been, quote, reclaimed.

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" quote, 'I despise grammar,' end quote." Brilliant. – ChrisR Sep 25 '13 at 13:34

"The best cure -quote,unquote - for aging is slowing disease". This means the first part of the sentence : "The best cure" is to be written in quotes and the remaining part of the sentence is to be written without quotes.

SO, the sentence would be like this : "The best cure" for aging is slowing disease.

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More likely The best "cure"... – mplungjan Sep 23 '13 at 14:07
@mplungjan - I think you're right, although The "best" cure... is also plausible. – J.R. Sep 23 '13 at 14:48
Not really. The quotes go on cure because slowing disease is not a cure for aging at all. Since it isn't any kind of cure, questions of whether or not it is the best cure and whether "best" should be in quotes are moot. – Kaz Sep 23 '13 at 22:25

Writing a sentence as "It's all based in some sense on their quote unquote 'moral authority,'" is different from hearing the same spoken as "It's all based in some sense on their quot unquote moral authority." That is to say, putting the actual quote marks in the written sentence makes it obvious what the "quote unquote" refers to, so writing it that way proves nothing. There is usually no way of knowing what is meant when someone orally says "quote unquote" with nothing between the "quotes." So it means nothing.

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