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Archive for January, 2015

Cite, citation

  1. The officer cited Bob for speeding.
  2. The officer issued Bob a citation.
  3. Alice cited Bob in her argument.
  4. Alice cited Bob’s paper in her argument.
  5. Alice’s paper had a citation to Bob’s paper.

Could these usages all be instances of a common pattern? I claim that they are. I cite the OED as my first witness. Here is what it gives as the first definition of cite:

To summon officially to appear in a court of law, whether as principal or witness.

The etymology given is Latin citāre to move, excite, or summon.

In example 1, Bob is the principal in a case. It’s not the officer’s job to declare guilt or mete out punishment, so he’s telling Bob to show up in court for trial and judgement on the accusation of speeding. Of course we usually default on these citations, thus implicitly pleading guilty, and pay a fine without showing up in court.

In example 2, there is a citation, that is, an act of citing: The officer is citing Bob (demanding that he show up in court). This would ordinarily mean that there is a piece of paper that records the fact that the officer has cited Bob, and that piece of paper is called a citation, and the piece of paper issues from the officer. This follows a common pattern where a proposition (claim, accusation, agreement, etc.) is confused with an expression of it (piece of writing, audio recording, etc.). I suspect there is a word for this kind of metaphorical extension, something akin to metonymy, and if there isn’t there should be.

In example 3, we’re not necessarily talking about a court of law, but a metaphorical court, that of scholarly debate. Alice is not literally asking Bob to show up as witness, but is doing so metaphorically, and if the stakes were high – if the argument escalated to a court case – that is what she would do.

In example 4, Bob has written a paper making some claim, and that claim, Alice says, supports her argument – so she wants him as a witness. Papers are much easier to summon than people, especially when e.g. the person is dead or incapacitated, so Alice cites the paper as a substitute for Bob himself. The paper is analogous to a legal deposition. In the era of the Web, we access sources very easily, by following a hyperlink, so a hyperlink can very usefully serve to satisfy a citation (with the usual provisos about bit rot, digital attacks, and so on).

In scholarly writing, as elsewhere, citation is an act of citing, or (metaphorically) a physical record of such an act. Those little parenthetical or superscript numbers you see in academic writing act as citations only if you know who (or what) is being summoned and why. The why usually comes from the preceding sentence – i.e. the sentence makes a claim and the superscript acts to cite (summon) support for the claim. The what or who comes from the footnote or endnote.

To say, as Wikipedia does today, that the little superscript is the definition of citation is ridiculous. It is just a participant in an act of citation. Even saying that a citation is a kind of reference is I think quite wrong. The expression of a citation makes a reference – to the entity being summoned. But there are many references that are not for the purpose of citation, and a citation is not a kind of reference. A reference can imply a citation just as shouting the name “Bob” can imply a request for Bob’s presence, but the reference to Bob and the request that he come are two completely different things.

As usual I’m going to say my peevish thing about the dilution of language robbing us of useful and deep means of expression, and shifting focus to the silliness of mechanics. Making claims and defending them are the heart of scholarship, and citation is a close partner. Written articles and their superscripts and lists are just mechanics and are in a sense irrelevant – if there were another way to accomplish the claiming and defending, that would be fine, and would not require us to stop using the word “citation”.

Thanks to Ross Mounce and Ed Summers for forcing me to write this down.

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