Talk:Use–mention distinction

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Douglas Hofstadter Quote[edit]

"We mention "our vast nuclear arsenal" so as to make it unnecessary to use it" -- Douglas Hofstadter


"We mention "our vast nuclear arsenal" so that we won`t have to use it." -- Douglas Hofstadter

I think that the former is the correct, but I don't have Metamagical Themas to check it with. This quotation would be an excellent example.

Paullusmagnus 21:15, 29 Aug 2003 (UTC)

I looked it up, but I don't see an obvious way of working it into the article. The quotation is:
We mention "our gigantic nuclear arsenal" in order not to use it.
-- Douglas R. Hofstadter, in Metamagical Themas
(Page 43 of the 1996 Penguin paperback edition, ISBN 0-14-008534-3.)
--AlanBarrett 22:02, 19 Jul 2004 (UTC)

Journalism section[edit]

The example under "journalism" is way out of date - as it turns out, some of the allegations were true and Jeffrey Archer is a crook. Anyone think of a new one? Onebyone 18:24, 17 Nov 2003 (UTC)


Perhaps I'm misinterpreting it, but the part about violating the use-mention distinction strikes me as ambiguous and confusing. It previously read:

Violation of the use-mention distinction can produce sentences that sound and appear similar to the original, but have an entirely different meaning. For example,

"The use-mention distinction" is not "strictly enforced here".

is literally true because the two phrases in it are not the same.

First, to comply with Manual of Style, I propose the example sentence be re-formatted as: The use-mention distinction is not strictly enforced here.

More importantly, I think the explanatory sentence needs to be re-worded. What constitutes a "violation" of the use-mention distinction? I'm not sure you can violate a distinction, although you may make a distinction ambiguous, or eliminate a distinction. I interpret the example sentence as demonstrating a case where the use-mention distinction may be ambiguous. The explanatory sentence also refers to "the original" - what is "the original" here? There is only one example given, although the sentence implies a second (or first, actually). I'm having trouble coming up with a good alternate version, but I have revised the section as follows:

For example, the two versions of a seemingly-paradoxical statement below can be interpreted to have two distinct meanings, one of which resolves the apparent paradox:

  • The use-mention distinction is not strictly enforced here.
  • The use-mention distinction is not strictly enforced here.

This statement (Putting a statement in quotation marks and attributing it to its originator is a useful way of turning a disputed statement about a subject into an undisputed statement about another statement.) is also problematic, particularly the "disputed/undisputed" business. It seems unencyclopedic to me. Schi 19:41, 28 September 2006 (UTC)

At first I didn't understand the example sentences, until I saw the explanatory material in this discussion which apparently used to be in the article itself: "... is literally true because the two phrases in it are not the same." As it is now, it is hard to tell what the second sentence means. The old explanation should be put back in. And shouldn't the word the be in italics too, since it's part of the phrase? 05:40, 14 January 2007 (UTC)
I think you're right about misinterpreting it, Schi. What is being violated is not a distinction, but a rule or recommendation known as "the use-mention distinction." Unfree (talk) 20:38, 17 December 2007 (UTC)

What about glosses?[edit]

How does a gloss—a translation or definition—fall into this model? It seems to be a third aspect. For example:

  • The moose is a large herbivore. Moose comes from the Algonquian mus or mooz (‘twig eater’).

The first moose is used. The second is mentioned, as are its algonquian translations. But the term 'twig eater' is neither: its meaning is essential, and it seems to be a derivative of the word. Michael Z. 2006-10-18 18:25 Z

Alice Through the Looking Glass[edit]

I think the conversation below is relevant to the use-mention distinction. Whether it is useful to link to is a different matter. Any comments? I see that Haddocks' Eyes mentions this article. This connection may already have been discussed here.

There is a passage in Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll in which the White Knight proposes to comfort Alice by singing her a song:

"Is it very long?" Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.
"It's long," said the Knight, "but it's very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it--either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else--"
"Or else what?" said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.
"Or else it doesn't, you know. The name of the song is called 'Haddock's Eyes'."
"Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?" Alice said, trying to feel interested.
"No, you don't understand," the Knight said, looking a little vexed. "That's what the name is called. The name really is 'The Aged Aged Man'."
"Then I ought to have said 'That's what the song is called?'" Alice corrected herself.
"No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called 'Ways and Means': but that's only what it's called, you know!"
"Well, what is the song, then?" said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
"I was coming to that," the Knight said. "The song really is 'A-sitting on a Gate': and the tune's my own invention."

Wanderer57 16:25, 19 October 2007 (UTC)


Shouldn't "use-mention" incorporate a hyphen? When I pasted it (from the beginning of the article) into Notepad and saved it, it didn't. For example, saving it as ANSI shows the character as hex 96, whereas the hyphen is hex 2d. I don't know how hex 96 should be rendered (in codepage 437, it's a lowercase u-caret), but perhaps a dash was entered by mistake. My browser (Firefox) apparently renders it as a dash. Unfree (talk) 20:21, 17 December 2007 (UTC)

It's an en dash. Typographical sticklers like to use that instead of a hyphen for compound modifiers when the two words are being related to each other in a symmetric way. See Hyphen#Compound_modifiers. (talk) 19:22, 9 January 2008 (UTC)

hat note[edit]

Carl, we have just been through a whole rigmarole over this issue at substitution instance which could have been avoided altogether if this hat note was here already. I think we can learn from our experiences, AND SHARE THEM WITH OTHERS in this way. The policy you refer to mentions nothing about hatspace. Furthermore, I just kind of hinted to you about narrowness. In this case there is not even a policy to take narrowly.

This was clearly a productive edit. I have no idea what makes you think that was a good idea. Was it a mistake to indicate that I feel like giving up? WTF? Pontiff Greg Bard (talk) 20:17, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

Putting aside speculation about how a reader might have reached the article on "use–mention distinction", I seems to me it might be useful to them to know that there is a Wikipedia policy on the matter. Or have I missed the point of this "discussion" completely? Wanderer57 (talk) 21:12, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
The guideline on avoiding self-references is important. Practice is that only a few, particularly important policies are given hatnotes in articles. For example, style guide has one, but not italics. The ""words as words" section is a particularly esoteric paragraph in the MOS, not a page of its own or a particularly important policy. There's no reason to violate the principle of avoiding self-references and cross-namespace redirects just to link to it. — Carl (CBM · talk) 21:26, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Carl, there is nothing self referential about it. The policy you cite does not apply to this case AT ALL. There may be some policy you are thinking of, but this does not appear to be it. Furthermore there are plenty of such hatnotes in WP so, maybe you should start there instead. Pontiff Greg Bard (talk) 21:31, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
No Wanderer. You understand clearly. The others seem to think that everybody uses the wp the way they do. These are the types that would remove the random link button if it wasn't hard wired into wp. Way to go guys, real helpful. Not to mention that its need was demonstrated by recent events. Help me out by putting it back. I'm done for the day on that issue. Pontiff Greg Bard (talk) 21:31, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Cross-namespace links are considered "self reference" in the language of wikipedia. Our general practice is to avoid them with a few select exceptions. — Carl (CBM · talk) 21:33, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Thank you. If the reference to the MOS was in the body of the Use-Mention article rather than in a hatnote, would there still have been an issue? Wanderer57 (talk) 21:37, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
It would still be a self reference, in the jargon people employ. Our goal is that, with a few exceptions, articles should not link to other namespaces or directly acknowledge the fact that they are on Wikipedia. I have sometimes found this practice restricting, as well, but it is justified by the goal that our articles should stand alone independent of the project that created them. In other words, readers of our articles should be able to ignore the editing part and just pay attention to the content. — Carl (CBM · talk) 21:41, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
CBM: I can sympathize with the goal you state. In the interest of understanding the policy and the situation, can we discuss the article USA Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia?
Both the hatnote and the first sentence of that article seem, on the surface at least, to offend the policy.
The questions in my mind are, 1) does the nature of the subject matter justify overriding the policy in this instance, and 2) is the wording used in the article appropriate? (My answers are 1) yes, and 2) no, as it seems excessively self-referential.) Wanderer57 (talk) 23:17, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
I think that was probably put there by popular concern around the time of the incidents. Now that it has been almost two years, I personally don't see the need to publicize an "internal account" of the incident at all. If our article isn't good enough to present all viewpoints impartially, then I think it should be improved rather than forked into Wikipedia space. There are, however, other editors who strongly dislike even mentioning Wikipedia in an article, even if Wikipedia is the subject. I'll ask on the talk page if the hatnote there still has much support. — Carl (CBM · talk) 00:21, 18 January 2008 (UTC)
Thank you. Aside from the hatnote, what about the first sentence of the article? (I ask this partly for the sake of improving the article, partly for my own education.) Wanderer57 (talk) 00:32, 18 January 2008 (UTC)
I think the first sentence is OK - it is neutrally worded, and the fact of the matter is that the incident involved Wikipedia. I am aware of other editors who more strongly oppose any mention of Wikipedia in our articles, but in this one I don't see any way to get around it. I think there will always be a degree of awkwardness in Wikipedia articles about incidents involving Wikipedia, and we have to deal with it on an ad hoc basis. — Carl (CBM · talk) 01:14, 18 January 2008 (UTC)

Comments re explanation of the concept of U-M Distinction[edit]

First sentence is: "The use–mention distinction is the distinction between using a word (or phrase, etc.) and mentioning it."

However, the rest of the paragraph is devoted to how the distinction is represented typographically. I think this is premature as the definition of the U-M distinction has not yet been made clear (at least in IMHO.)

I think the concept of "use-mention distinction" can be better explained if the word "mention" does not have to be used in the explanation. My attempt at a revised explanation follows.

The use–mention distinction is the distinction between using a word (or phrase, etc.) to refer to the "thing" it represents, and discussing the word itself.
For example, the following sentences illustrate the use-mention distinction.
  • Cheese is made from milk.
  • Cheese is derived from a word in Old English.
The first sentence is a statement about cheese. The second is a statement about the word "cheese".
This could be said more briefly as follows:
  • Cheese is made from milk. (This is a statement about cheese.)
  • "Cheese" is derived from a word in Old English. (This is a statement about the word "cheese".)

I find the following sentence confusing. "The use–mention distinction is the distinction between using a word (or phrase, etc.) and mentioning it." In everyday speech, it could be said that both of the example sentences use the word "cheese".

I may be way off-base. Someone else please take a look. Thanks. Wanderer57 (talk) 00:09, 6 March 2008 (UTC)

Comments re article lead section[edit]

Currently more than half the lead is about how to represent the distinction in print. It seems to me this detracts from the explanation of the distinction itself.

I suggest the part about how to represent the distinction should be a section in the body of the article.

This would leave the lead section quite short. An example to illustrate the concept could be put into the lead to make it clearer. Wanderer57 (talk) 23:00, 13 April 2008 (UTC)

I agree. Certain articles have a tendency to move towards addressing Wikipedia editors primarily, even though our goal is to build a general encyclopedia. Perhaps WP:UMD could be bolstered with specific formatting examples, and that would alleviate the pressure to the have this article's lead section serve that role? (section-shortcuts seem to be broken right this second... if they're still broken, WP:UMD points here)
Regarding examples, the lead contains the cheese example already. Is the cheese example a problem as well? While it does brush against some of the formatting issues (necessarily so, since this is a written medium), formatting issues aren't its main focus like other parts of the lead are. --Underpants (talk) 16:43, 15 April 2008 (UTC)
I'd simply chop off the lead at the words "In written language", and make everything from that point on a section of the article. Heading? Maybe "Usage" - but that's already taken. BTW, what is that "usage" section about, and how does it relate to the subject of the article? Would we better off if it were simply deleted? Or am I just too stupid to understand it? Snalwibma (talk) 17:11, 15 April 2008 (UTC)

Words used to mention themselves[edit]

The opening of the article is wrong to say that, in the sentence "Cheese is derived from a word in Old English", the word cheese is mentioned, but not used. The word is used, to mention itself. I tried to make the correction, but it was reverted by VoluntarySlave. I don't know why. (This editor's distinction between referring and mentioning is obscure, by the way.) In my editing, I followed Church, to whose book I gave a reference. (Church was following Quine, but it was Church that was on my shelf.) Right now, the article seems to have no example of mentioning a word without using it. Again, this is a problem that I tried to correct; but reversion removed the correction. David Pierce (talk) 12:49, 19 August 2008 (UTC)

I agree with David Pierce. The opening is confusing precisely for the reason he states.
Because the subject of the article bears the name "use-mention distinction", it is essential to employ the words "use" and "mention" at some point in the explanation. However, in the name "use-mention distinction", both "use" and "mention" have specific technical meanings.
In ordinary parlance, the word "go" is used in the sentence "Go is a short word." In the special sense under discussion in this article, "go" is not used in that sentence.
As long as we are saddled with the (IMO) ill-chosen name "use-mention distinction", the wording problem cannot be eliminated but only reduced somewhat. Is there an alternative name, by any chance? Wanderer57 (talk) 15:59, 19 August 2008 (UTC)
Well, as "use-mention distinction" is the common name used in philosophy, I think it's helpful that the article explain these terms specifically, rather than (or as well as) explaining the underlying concept under another name. In explaining the technical sense of these terms, I think it's important that we don't confuse this with the everyday sense: hence why I reverted David Pierce's edits. In the usual way of things, it's true that "'cheese' has six letters" uses the word 'cheese' to refer to the word itself; but, in the technical sense in which "use" and "mention" are distinguished, the two terms are mutually exclusive; because the word is being mentioned here, it isn't being used (see Davidson's "Quotation").
But I do see that it's confusing that the article doesn't clarify up front that it's using 'use' and 'mention' in a specific technical sense. Perhaps the article should begin by explaining that "use" and "mention" have technical meanings rather different from their everyday meanings, and perhaps introduce a term like "employ" to stand for the more general, everyday, sense of "use" (I got the idea from [an article by A. W. Moore]). VoluntarySlave (talk) 17:32, 19 August 2008 (UTC)
I've just checked the Church and the Quine, and Quine uses the expressions the same way as Davidson, and as the article currently does, in which to mention a name is not to use it: "To say that the place-name in question is disyllabic we must use, not the name itself, but a name of it" (Mathematical Logic, 23). Church, although referencing Quine's introduction of the terms, doesn't use "use" in the same restricted sense as Quine. I think that Quine's more restricted terminology, in which use and mention are mutually exclusive, became the standard one, and this is reflected in the Davidson; the specific quote is "It is often said that in quotation, the quoted expressions are mentioned and not used" (Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 80, my emphasis). Still, this involves adjudicating which of a number of reliable sources is most representative, which we perhaps could do with some kind of tertiary source; I looked for an entry for "use-mention distinction" in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but neither seem to have entries specifically on this topic.VoluntarySlave (talk) 20:14, 19 August 2008 (UTC)

Use/mention "fallacy"[edit]

Discussion moved from Talk:Use/mention fallacy.

This page (Use/mention fallacy) has been removed twice (ie replaced with the original redirect to Use-mention distinction). On the second occasion, Snalwibma at least had the common courtesy to follow policy and provide an edit summary. Since the article was my contribution, and since I feel that Wikipedia should include an article on this subject, I am responding here.

The edit summary states: "This page is nothing but WP:OR. There is no "fallacy". Best as a redirect"

The last point might have force if use/mention fallacies were defined on the redirect page, but they are not. Indeed, they are not mentioned at all. Furthermore, I can make no sense of the second point. Interpreted as "there is no such recognised thing as a use/mention fallacy" it is obviously false, as can easily be shown by a google search (=use mention fallacy). The first ten results alone include citable examples dating back more than three decades. (Specifically, John R Searle's December 1976 review of "Toward a Linguistic Theory of Speech Acts" by Jerrold M Sadock in Language: "There seems to me to be several massive use-mention fallacies in this .... But this has the effect of building a persistent use-mention fallacy into ...") I don't want to insult Snalwibma's intelligence by implying he or she didn't bother to try this search, but I can't otherwise understand the criticism.

I'm less sure of my ground when it comes to the allegation of WP:OR. The example isn't mine, but I got it from the oral tradition (and changed 'nigger' to 'honky', mainly because I'm white myself), so can't cite anything to justify it. But I don't accept that inventing illustrative examples counts as WP:OR. If it did, the consequences for Wikipedia would be unfortunate, for whereas it might just be possible to quote a citable definition under fair use of copyright, quoting copyrighted examples is surely not on. So contributors must invent them if we are avoid an encyclopedia of merely abstract prose that only makes sense if you already know what it means. (As if there weren't enough of that in Wikipedia already.)

Accordingly, I am minded to recreate this page with a couple of suitable citations added. -PRNG4u (talk) 05:09, 3 September 2008 (UTC)

PS: As this talk page has now moved, I need to clarify a nasty ambiguity in the above. The Wikipedian who first removed the fallacy article and did not provide an edit summary was not Snalwibma. Thanks. -PRNG4u (talk) 06:27, 3 September 2008 (UTC)

My take on this would be that it isn't a fallacy, just a misunderstanding. Someone who fails to see that in "Anyone who uses 'honky' is racist" the word honky is mentioned but not used simply does not grasp the use-mention distinction. Where is the fallacy? I grant that some writers have used the word fallacy in referring to the use-mention distinction, but we do not need an article on every variation in terminology. We do not have separate articles on Atlantic puffin and Fratercula arctica: one is a redirect to the other. Same in this case. It may well be worth adding a few lines about possible misunderstandings to the article on use-mention distinction, and I'd be happy to see the question of whether it's a fallacy discussed there (with reference to appropriate reliable sources such as that mentioned above) - but this minor terminological variation does not merit a separate spin-off article. SNALWIBMA ( talk - contribs ) 05:35, 3 September 2008 (UTC)
The "racist" example from Use/mention fallacy is still very useful to show the average person (and Derrida, too) that the pedantic seeming distinction can matter in everyday life. Can we add it to this article? --Florian Blaschke (talk) 14:52, 21 December 2013 (UTC)


The first statement is introduced as an "apparent paradox", but it appears to be absolutely true.

  • The use-mention distinction is not strictly enforced here.

To make it a paradox, I propose changing it to:

  • The use-mention distinction is not strictly enforced here.

Similarly, the next two statements are described as "use/mention mistakes", but they also appear to be true.

  • "Copper" contains six letters, and is not a metal.
  • Copper is a metal, and contains no letters.

Or maybe I'm just crazy? Very possible... Pslide (talk) 03:08, 24 July 2009 (UTC)

In the second case ("copper"/copper), I agree the illustration given is of the distinction, not of use-mention mistakes. I've put in both "correct" and "incorrect" examples. Also, I think I'm right in saying a use-mention confusion will sometimes, but not always, result in a category error ("copper contains six letters").
In the first case, I agree the first statement is correct, while the second may or may not be true. It's not an example from Metamagical Themas. BTW Hofstadter uses quotation marks throughout; italics can have other meanings such as emphasis or, as mentioned above, glosses. However, since this article refers to Hofstadter, and indeed to philosophical texts in general, I think using quotation marks is much better than italics.
When a word is used to refer to something, it is said to be being used. When a word is quoted though, so that one is examining it for its surface aspects (typographical, phonetic, etc.), it is said to be being mentioned.
(p9, emphasis in original)
I think this edit by Schi introduced several errors including the one you mention. I'm also not sure what an "apparent paradox" is, since a paradox is something that is an apparent self-contradiction. (The concept of paradox is not really relevant to the subject matter in any case.)
Anyway, it would appear and Unfree are also objecting to that edit, so it should be reverted, rather than changed. --Cedderstk 13:00, 4 October 2009 (UTC)
I've reverted and placed it before the discussion of paradoxes, as the latter seems a more advanced topic than what was originally being discussed. My citations need tidying, I'm afraid. --Cedderstk 13:54, 5 October 2009 (UTC)

Use of Quotes[edit]

The text currently gives an example of varying quotes to emphasize the instances of the use-mention distinction:

With reference to "bumbershoot", Peter explained that 'The term refers to an umbrella.'

But this is reverse of the common convention (at least in American English), which would lead to:

With reference to 'bumbershoot', Peter explained that "The term refers to an umbrella."

Unless the approach illustrated is common in the UK, it should be considered an error. In any case, a clarification is needed. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Cerberus0 (talkcontribs) 16:00, 22 October 2010 (UTC)

Never mind the "/' It should surely say either
  • With reference to 'bumbershoot', Peter said "The term refers to an umbrella."
  • With reference to 'bumbershoot', Peter explained that the term refers to an umbrella.
Philogo (talk) 19:39, 3 December 2010 (UTC)

Heathrow airport[edit]

Apparently Heathrow airport security does not understand the use-mention distinction.[1] (talk) 08:03, 10 February 2011 (UTC)

My name is "Colin"[edit]

In the very clause of "My name is Colin", it's generally seen as rather silly to keep the distinction. Yet, things like "My name is stupid" and even proper nouns like "My name is Norwegian" are still viable sentences. Should this be confronted in the Grammar bit? (talk) 11:14, 9 May 2012 (UTC)

Do words change sense when they are mentioned?[edit]

Is "passionately" in this sentence a noun or an adverb? Or are there inerrant problems in this thinking? — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 09:44, 16 May 2012 (UTC)

Good point. I vote honorary noun, just for the occasion. (talk) 10:41, 28 May 2012 (UTC)
All quotations can be used syntactically like nouns, even whole sentences. It would be silly to say that a sentence as such changes into a noun when quoted. Think of it like that-clauses: "I have learned that cheese derives from milk." I think we'll agree that "cheese derives from milk" is a sentence, and "that cheese derives from milk" is a clause; however, being a clause, it cannot be classified as being in the word-class noun. It is a nominal clause and can thus be used like a noun, for example as a subject or object in a sentence like "I have learned X" or "X is true". --Florian Blaschke (talk) 14:29, 21 December 2013 (UTC)


Prefixing a term with the phrase "so-called" can also be used to convey a use–mention distinction.

I think this is misleading. The normal use of "so-called" does not so much convey a use-mention distinction as introduce one. Compare these sentences:

A. Your democracy failed to protect us.
B. Your so-called democracy failed to protect us.

In both sentences, the word 'democracy' is used, and the primary meaning of both sentences is the same. However, in sentence B, the word 'democracy' is mentioned in addition to being used; it is mentioned in order to disclaim its use in that very sentence. In fact, sentence B is essentially an abbreviated version of:

C. Your democracy (if 'democracy' is the right word) failed to protect us.

which makes the use and the mention explicit and distinct. Google turns up a similar example from Quine:

Giorgione was so-called because of his size.


Giorgione was called 'Giorgione' because of his size.

"So-called" adds use-mention complexities to a sentence; it is not used to clarify the distinction in an existing sentence, as quote marks or italics are. As it stands, the article gives the impression that it would be correct to say:

D. So-called democracy has nine letters.

So I'm reversing the edit in question. DanielCristofani (talk) 21:56, 1 January 2014 (UTC)


‘The distinction is disputed by non-analytic philosophers.[4]’

I think mentioning this so prominently and early in the article is giving it undue weight and going against the WP:DUE guideline. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 19:04, 26 February 2016 (UTC)