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Use and Mention April 12, 2007

Posted by Ninja Clement in Philosophy.

Metalinguistic sentences are about linguistic entities. Just as we can talk about objects and events, we can also talk about words, names, sentences, titles, labels, etc. Consider the following:

John is tall

This sentence makes reference to the person John. John, the person, obviously does not appear in the sentence. Rather it is the word John that appears. We can put it this way: John, the person, is mentioned in the sentence, and John, the word, is used in it. Now consider next a metalinguistic sentence:

‘John’ consists of four letters

This sentence does not make reference to John, the person. Instead, it is about the word John. In this case, John, the word, is mentioned in the sentence. Yet what then is used in the sentence, if John, the word, is already mentioned?

We can name children, pets and pet rocks. We can also name words. Of course, names are themselves words. In naming a word, we are merely presenting another word, one that refers to the designated word. Now what name should the word John have? To keep things simple, we can name the word with the same word, surrounded by single quotation marks. The word ‘John’ is thus the name of the word John (or, more simply, ‘John’ is the name of John).

With this distinction in mind, we have a way of mentioning (talking about) a word (or group of words) when we want to say, for instance, that it is long or short, common or rare, mono-syllabic or tri-syllabic, or whatever. So, in the previous sentence, John, the word, is mentiond, and ‘John’, the name of the word, is used.

Some more examples:

Paddy is Irish (Paddy is an Irish person)
‘Paddy’ is Irish (Paddy is an Irish name)

Chicken Soup for the Soul costs $24.95 (There is a bowl of chicken soup that is good for the soul and it costs $24.95)
‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ costs $24.95 (There is a book with the title Chicken Soup for the Soul and it costs $24.95)

Geena said I was upset (Geena asserted that I was upset)
Geena said “I was upset” (Geena asserted that she was upset)



1. Jared - April 16, 2007

Forgive me, for I cannot help myself:

Jared said I farted (Jared asserted that I farted)
Jared said “I farted” (Jared asserted that he farted)

I hope this doesn’t completely kill the conversation.

2. Ninja Clement - April 17, 2007

“I hope this doesn’t completely kill the conversation.”

Too late. Your gastrointestinal stench is so overpowering I can barely breathe. Someone pass the incense, please!

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