Saturday, January 26, 2008

Use and Mention

Here, thanks to Bill Poser at Language Log, is a distinction I have not come across before: between use and mention. A professor at Brandeis (see the links in Poser's post) was found guilty of racial harassment for saying this:

"Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'wetbacks'."

As Poser points out, the professor did not actually call anyone a "wetback"; he did not use the term. Instead, he only mentioned it.

I've made this distinction in my mind for many years, but never as concisely. It helps one think about how to talk about obscenities (for recent thoughts about that, see here).

Poser sums up the general point:

"In the absence of other information, one is not entitled to draw any inference as to the speaker's attitudes and beliefs from mentions."

It suddenly crosses my mind that this explains why one should never attribute a fictional character's ideas to the author: whatever a fictional character says is, from the author's perspective, a mention and not a use.

1 comment:

mrjumbo said...

Keeping the NAFTA circle complete, here's a slightly different problem that cropped up with reference to the term "Canadian."