Use–mention distinction  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The use–mention distinction (sometimes referred to as the words-as-words distinction) is the distinction between using a word (or phrase) and mentioning it. For example, the following two sentences illustrate use and mention of the word cheese:

  • Cheese is derived from milk.
  • Cheese is derived from a word in Old English.

The first sentence is a statement about the substance cheese. It uses the word cheese to describe its referent. The second is a statement about the word cheese. It mentions the word without using it.

In written language, mentioned words or phrases often appear between quotation marks ("Chicago" contains three vowels) or in italics (When I refer to honey, I mean the sweet stuff that bees make), and some authorities insist that mentioned words or phrases must always be made visually distinct in this manner. Used words or phrases (much more common than mentioned ones) do not bear any typographic distinction.

If quotes are used, it is sometimes the practice to distinguish between the quotation marks used for speech and those used for mentioned words, with double quotes in one place and single in the other:

  • American: When Larry said, "That has three letters," he was referring to the word 'bee'.
  • British: With reference to "bumbershoot", Peter explained that 'The term refers to an umbrella.'

Many authorities, however, recommend against making such a distinction, and prefer one style of quotation mark to be used for both purposes.



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.

Self-referential statements mention themselves or their components, often producing logical paradoxes. There are many examples of self reference and use–mention distinction in the works of Douglas Hofstadter. A mathematical analogy of self referential statements lies at the core of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.

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

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

Use–mention and suppositio

The general property of terms changing their reference depending on the context was called suppositio (substitution) by classical logicians. It describes how one has to substitute a term in a sentence based on its meaning—that is, based on the term's referent. In general, a term can be used in several ways. For nouns, they are:

  • Properly with a real referent: "That is my cow" (assuming it exists). (personal supposition)
  • Properly with a generic referent: "Any cow gives milk." (simple supposition)
  • Properly but with a non-real referent: "Ulysses's cow was big."
  • Improperly by way of metaphor: "Your sister is a cow". (improper supposition)
  • As a pure term: "Cow has only three letters". (material supposition)

The last use is what invokes the use–mention distinction.

Use–mention in philosophy

The use–mention distinction is especially important in analytic philosophy. The standard notation for mentioning a term is to put it in quotation marks. Failure to properly distinguish use from mention can produce false or misleading statements, so care should be taken to avoid that circumstance:

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

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Use–mention distinction" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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