In spoken English, people often say "quote-unquote" (or "quote-endquote") to indicate that part of what they are saying is a quotation (scare or otherwise). Sometimes the quoted material will go between quote and unquote, and occasionaly it will precede the quote-unquote. Often, though, "quote unquote" introduces the quoted material.

Why does quote unquote precede the quotation?

It would seem that quote opens the quoted text and that unquote closes it, but then why would we close the quotation before actually providing it. It would be the equivalent of writing your quotation marks together, "", rather than around the quoted text.

What are the origins of this construction?

Three years ago ChrisR asked this well-received question on whether it is correct to use quote, unquote. The answers did not deal with origins, but one commenter suggested that quote-unquote is a corruption of quote-on-quote, but he provided no evidence, nor any real explanation.

  • 4
    This has always bugged me too. I figured it was because the person doesn't want to risk forgetting to close his quote later.
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 19, 2016 at 17:48
  • It's a rhetorical device. For instance, if a public figure has made a short comment that is particularly stupid, it has more impact to precede it with "quote-unquote" than to say "X said, and I quote, 'blah-blah-blah,' unquote." The latter is more correct, of course, but it can take away from the comment, which should be the point of the statement. I agree it is often better not to use it at all, but I don't object to it in speech when used effectively. That said, there's nothing wrong with saying, "Today, X shed further light on his position by saying, 'blah-blah-blah." No "quote" needed. Dec 19, 2016 at 18:28
  • @MarkHubbard Thank you. I don't, though, object to the usage. I just want to know how it started (I get, though, that it is difficult to track spoken origins) because it seems very counter-intuitive
    – Unrelated
    Dec 19, 2016 at 18:30
  • en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/quote says: Phrases quote-unquote (also quote, unquote) informal Used parenthetically when speaking to indicate the beginning and end of a statement or passage that one is repeating: [...] ‘the brochure describes the view as, quote, unquote, unforgettably breathtaking’ then goes on to say, Late Middle English: from medieval Latin quotare, from quot how many, or from medieval Latin quota (see quota). The original sense was ‘mark a book with numbers, or with marginal references’, later ‘give a reference by page or chapter’ (late 16th century). Dec 19, 2016 at 18:41
  • However, I could not find a dated reference to the informal usage cited above. Sorry! :-( Dec 19, 2016 at 18:42

2 Answers 2


To the question of the construction/placement, this linguistics professor describes quote/unquote as a "compound prefixal particle", and he explains its usage as a concern by the speaker for improved effect on the listener:

…if you are doing scare quotes in speech, and thereby taking your chances with the listener's short-term memory, chances are you're targeting only one word or phrase—one phonological unit in any case—and you don't really need to mark the end; it's obvious. All you really need is a marker at the beginning to warn your parter to listen ironically.

To the question of origin, Online Etymology Dictionary says:

unquote (v.)

1915, in telegraphs, where punctuation had to be spelled out and quote and unquote were used in place of the quotation marks; from un- "reverse, opposite of" + quote. Quote/unquote together to indicate quotation of the word or phrase to follow (often with ironic intent) is from 1942.

  • It's worth pointing out that the "quoted" section will usually be heavily emphasised, often in a sing-song "mocking" way, when spoken, (and perhaps put in italics if written), to further aid the listener in knowing when the quoted part has ended. Aug 17, 2020 at 12:15

He was quote/unquote "Evil." I also agree when it is used this way it is often: scare quotes.

I am used to literal passages described in this way: "She replied with, Quote: 'I told you to leave me alone, you blue bearded parasite' Unquote". Then he became intimidated, stopped his rant, and ran away with his wounded pride.

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