Difference Between 'Quote' and 'Quotation'? What Is the Right Word?

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Quote and Quotation? Difference?. (Tara Moore/Getty Images)

Often the words quote and quotation are used interchangeably. Quote is a verb and quotation is a noun. As A. A. Milne put it in a humorous note:

"A quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business."

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word quotation is defined as, "A group of words taken from a text or speech and repeated by someone other than the original author or speaker."

The word quote means to "repeat the exact words of another with the acknowledgement of the source." In Ralph Waldo Emerson's words, 

"Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors."

Going Back to Roots: Origin of the Words 'Quotation' and 'Quote'

The origin of the word quote goes back to Medieval English, sometime around 1387. The word quote is a derivation of the Latin word quotare, which means "to mark a book with numbers of chapters for reference."

According to Sol Steinmetz, author of the book, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning, 200 years or so later, the meaning of the word quotation was expanded to include the meaning, "to copy out or repeat a passage from a book or author."

One of the most frequently quoted American personalities is Abraham Lincoln. His words have proved to be a source of inspiration and wisdom.

In one of his many famous writings, he wrote,

"It is a pleasure to be able to quote lines to fit any occasion."

Humorist Steven Wright also had something to say about quotes. He mused,

"Sometimes I wish my first word was 'quote,' so that on my death bed, my last words could be 'end quote."

The most striking example of use of the word quote in a quote is that of Robert Benchley.

He said, and I quote,

"The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him." 

By 1618, the word quotation came about to mean "a passage or text copied out or repeated from a book or author." So, the word quotation is a phrase or a sentence from a book or a speech that reflects the author's profound thoughts.

In 1869, the word quotes was used to refer to the quotation marks (") that are a part of English punctuation.

Single or Double Quotation Marks to Punctuate the Quotations

If these little quotations marks have caused you great anxiety, fret not. These little curvy creatures that adorn your text when you cite a quotation don't have rigid rules. Americans and Canadians are accustomed to using the double quotations marks (" ") to denote cited text. And if you have a quotation within a quotation, you can use single quotation marks (' ') to mark the specific word or phrase that needs to be highlighted.

Here is an example of a quotation. This is a text cited from Abraham Lincoln's Lyceum Address:

"The question recurs, 'how shall we fortify against it?' The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others."

In this quote, you see that double quotation marks were used at the ends of the paraphrase, and single quotation marks were used to highlight certain words of the text.

In the case of British English, the rule is reversed. The Brits prefer to have single quotation marks on the outer ends, while they use double quotation marks to denote a quotation within a quotation.

Here is an example of the British style of punctuating quotes. And who better than the Queen of England whose quote can be used to explain the Queen's English? Here's a quote from Queen Elizabeth I:

'I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too.'

'Quoth': A Word From Old English That Was Lost in the Sands of Time

Interestingly, another word that is used for quotation in Old English is the word quoth.

This was a popular archaic English used by Edgar Allen Poe in his poem, in which he uses the phrase,

"Quoth the raven “Nevermore."

Much before Poe's time, the word quoth was liberally used in Shakespeare's plays. In the play As You Like It, Scene VII, Jaques says,

"Good morrow, fool,’ quoth I. ‘ No, sir,’ quoth he."

The English language saw a tectonic shift over centuries. Old English paved the way for new lexicon. New words were inducted from other dialects, other than Scandinavian, Latin, and French words. Also, the shift in sociopolitical climate in the 18th and 19th centuries contributed to the gradual decline of old English words. So, words like quoth ended up in the dusty corners of old dictionaries, never to see daylight, except in the reproductions of classic English literature.

How 'Quotation' Came to Mean the Same as 'Quote'

We see that over a period of time, more specifically by the end of 19th century, the word quotation gradually made way for its contracted version. The word quote, being concise, short, and spiffy became the favored word over its elaborate and formal precedent quotation. English scholars and puritans would still prefer to go by the word quotation rather than the word quote, but in the informal setting, the word quote is the preferred choice.

Which One Should You Use? 'Quote' or 'Quotation?'

If you are in the august presence of distinguished members who mind their P's and Q's in far greater depth than you would envisage, make sure to use the word quotation ​when you are citing some text. However, you don't have to fret over this one. With the prolific use of quote instead of quotation in many online and offline resources, you are safe to use the words interchangeably. The grammar police will not hound you for being indiscriminate.