Use–Mention Distinction

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 1:25 PM | Filed under

Here's a riddle you have probably heard before:

Railroad crossing, watch out for cars.
Can you spell that without any R's?


The problem is that the riddle doesn't really work when it's written out. The problem is that there is no use–mention distinction. When in writing a word, you mean to refer to the word itself, instead of what the word means, you need to offset the word in quotation marks or italics.

The riddle at the top of this article could mean different things depending on where you put quotation marks.

"Railroad crossing, watch out for cars."
Can you spell that without any R's?


In this example, the riddle is presenting you with the words "Railroad crossing, watch out for cars." Because the "that" is not in quotation marks, it's assumed that it is referring to the first sentence, which means that the riddle is asking you to spell it without R's ("Aiload cossing, watch out fo cas") or completely redo the sentence ("Locomotives go by, be mindful of automobiles").

Railroad crossing, watch out for cars.
Can you spell "that" without any R's?


In this second example, "that" is in quotation marks, which means that you are literally asked to spell "that" without using any R's, which is very easy to do: "T‑H‑A‑T." See, this riddle really isn't very fun if it's written out.

I want to discuss one last thing. Instead of putting a word in quotation marks, you could italicize it, but I don't prefer to do this. Some people may think of it as emphasizing the word's meaning. In the last example, if you italicized "that," people might think you're emphasizing it (Spell that, sucker!).

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