A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 49: introducing the quasiquote

The best thing about running Shady Characters, bar none, is when a reader alerts me to a genuinely novel punctuation mark. A symbol I haven’t seen before, perhaps, or one that fills a niche I hadn’t ever considered. Ned Brooks checked both these boxes when he posted to the Shady Characters Facebook page to tell me about the so-called quasiquote. I’ll let Ned introduce this fantastic mark of punctuation:

The interrobang was discussed on the Yahoo group for typewriter collectors, and it reminded me of another punctuation mark popular at one time in mimeographed science fiction fanzines – the quasiquote. This was made of the ‐ typed under the " and meant that the phrase quoted might be the sense rather that the exact words from some source.1

First, a bit of background. “Fanzines”, for the uninitiated, are self-published magazines produced by the fans of a particular hobby — science fiction, punk music or video games, to pick just a few — and are often characterised by a lo-fi approach to their printing and distribution. As Ned mentions, early ’zines were “mimeographed” — that is, they were produced using an early type of copying machine called a mimeograph. A master stencil of each page was produced by typing onto a sheet of wax paper and was then copied by the machine, which forced ink through the stencil and onto a blank sheet of paper.2*

The use of typewriters to prepare mimeographic stencils made it easy to overstrike mistakes (the traditional fanzine approach was to do this with slashes — ‘/’ — rather than ‘X’s or dashes), or even to deliberately combine characters. “The interrobang was easily made with a back-space and over-type”, as Ned told me via email, which is remarkable in itself. But this quirk of typewriter operation also allowed the construction of the fabled quasiquote, where a hyphen and quotation mark were overstruck to produce something like "this", or 'this', and which encapsulated an abbreviated or paraphrased quotation rather a verbatim report of the speaker’s words.

Ned’s explanation of the quasiquote would have been intriguing enough by itself, but he outdid himself by sending me scans of two fanzine lexicons that described and demonstrated the quasiquote in action. Here, then, straight from the horse’s mouth, is the definition of the quasiquote as given by the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer, one of the founding fathers of fandom:3

Definition of the quasiquote as given in the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)
Definition of the quasiquote as given in the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

And later, from the 1966 reprint of the 1955 Neofan’s Guide by one Bob Tucker, a fan who went on to become a professional writer in his own right:4

1956 definition of quasiquote by Bob Tucker, as given in his Neofan’s Guide. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)
1956 definition of quasiquote by Bob Tucker, as given in his Neofan’s Guide. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

Despite its novelty outside the fanzine community, the quasiquote was no flash in the pan. Attested as early as 1944 (and likely created even earlier), it is still used in some ’zines and has even lent its name to one: Londoner Sandra Bond published a science-fiction ’zine named QuasiQuote from 1999 to 2008,5 adopting the name of the mark “because (to me) it evoked a nicely retro feel, as well as commemorating a typographical quirk I thought deserved to be remembered.” Ironically enough, as technology has advanced the quasiquote has become more difficult to type, and Sandra told me that “the quasiquote as used in QuasiQuote, the fanzine (i.e. this: -") was only in that form because unlike a manual typewriter where overstrikes were possible, I couldn’t put both the quote and the hyphen in one space in a word processor.”6

Where now, then, for the quasiquote? Graphically, there’s nothing to stop the quasiquote from appearing on computer screens everywhere. Modern word processors may lack a simple way to overstrike characters but they almost universally allow text to be struck out with a horizontal line; HTML, too, the language of the World Wide Web, allows text to be struck out in a similar manner. I dont know about you, but I think that these hacked-together quasiquotes look rather fetching.

It’s far more difficult to see how quasiquotes might fare as a regular mark of punctuation. They certainly have a neatly unambiguous function that is not already fulfilled by any other mark of punctuation; writers have been paraphrasing quotations since time immemorial, but either they do not trouble to tell their readers or they signpost their words with exculpatory statements such as “in other words”, or “words to that effect”. And unlike some novel marks of punctuation (I’m looking at you, SarcMark®) the quasiquote is not offensively weird to the eye. Even so, the lot of the newly-invented (or, if I may say so, newly-discovered) mark of punctuation is rarely an easy one. We all know how the interrobang fared — neither snuffed out entirely nor enshrined in common use — and the quasiquote will surely face just the same uphill struggle for acceptance. I, for one, will be rooting for it.

Thanks to Ned Brooks for getting in touch and for his scans, and to Sandra Bond for answering my questions. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and please leave a comment below if you’ve come across the quasiquote or any analogous mark in print!

Unknown bibtex entry with key [NedBrooks2014Correspondence] ↩︎
Unknown bibtex entry with key [QLD2014Mimeograph] ↩︎
Unknown bibtex entry with key [JackSpeer2014] ↩︎
Unknown bibtex entry with key [TuckerWilson2014] ↩︎
QuasiQuote,” ZineWiki, 2013. ↩︎
Unknown bibtex entry with key [SandraBond2014Correspondence] ↩︎
You can see a mimeograph in operation in this video↩︎
These quasiquotes were created by applying the <del/>, or “deletion” tag to opening and closing quotation marks. The resultant “hyphens” are a little thick, but with some CSS magic they could be made to be thinner and more in keeping with the font. ↩︎

37 comments on “Miscellany № 49: introducing the quasiquote

  1. Comment posted by Cuyler on

    An excellent explication! What was typed on for mimeo printing was not just “wax paper” in the sense of what used to be used in the kitchen to wrap sandwiches. The mimeo stencil was high-tech and no one will be making them in the basement as a hobby. The basic element was a very porous paper which was coated very thin with a special wax on one side. This was too flimsy to get into a typewriter, so it was attached at the top to a heavy backing sheet. In typing the thin wax was knocked aside where the type-slug struck. Then when the stencil was mounted on the mimeograph machine, ink could pass through the paper where the wax was missing, leaving the letter image on the copy paper. I still have mimeographs, and printed a page quite recently.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Cuyler — thanks for the comment, and for all your help with the article!

      Your clarifications on the mimeograph process are very welcome. I wasn’t able to find a decent source for information on the mimeo process (do you happen to know of one?) so it’s great to hear more about it.

  2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    The term quasiquotation is also used by logicians and functional programmers in a somewhat more precise sense. A quasiquotation is a sentence schema that contains a variable, and thus represents an infinite number of actual sentences. For example, the infinite set of sentences similar to these:

    The sentence “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.

    The sentence “Grass is green” is true if an only if grass is green.

    The sentence “Socrates is mortal” is true if and only if Socrates is mortal.

    may be summed up using the sentence variable X thus: The sentence “X” is true if and only if X. However, simple quotation does not correctly capture the intent here, for as written this speaks of the sentence consisting of the letter X, rather than the value of the variable X. Changing the quotation to a quasiquotation signals that X is a variable.

    Typographically, there are two styles used for this kind of quasiquotation. Logicians set them off by the top-left and top-right corners, ⌜ and ⌝, and use Greek letters for the variables, thus: ⌜χ⌝ is true if and only if χ. Functional programmers use different but ASCII-compatible conventions.

    Unix shell programmers use double quotes for quasiquotations and single quotes for ordinary quotations, although they don’t use the term “quasiquotation”.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John — that’s very interesting. Would it be correct to say that the application of logical/functional quasiquotation marks effectively “parses” a sentence that contains a logical proposition?

    2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

      Maybe it would, but I must confess I don’t follow your question. Can you rephrase, please?

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Ah – I see now that I misinterpreted your meaning. If I understand correctly, logical quasiquotation marks imply that the variable they enclose is referred to elsewhere in a logical statement, and that as referred outside those quasiquotation marks the variable is evaluated as part of that logical statement. Logical quasiquotation marks transform an executable logical expression given into words to an non-executable statement given in words. Might we consider them to be a kind of logical toString() function…?

  3. Comment posted by Bonnie on

    When I was young I typed many stencils to be mimeographed. There was a special fluid that could be used to correct typos, although it could get pretty messy. Mimeographs were a big step up from ditto machines (purple ink), that were nearly impossible to correct. I seem to remember razor blades came into it. Sorry to get distracted from the quasiquote — I love it!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Not at all! Thanks for throwing some light on the mimeographic process.

    2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

      Correction fluid was traditionally known as corflu.

  4. Comment posted by Athel Cornish-Bowden on

    With a little experimentation I have found it quite easy to produce decent-looking quasiquotations in LaTeX. This works quite well, but could doubtless be improved: ``\hspace*{-0.1cm}-Quasiquotation''\hspace*{-0.13cm}-

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Athel — thanks for that. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some ’zines are prepared with LaTeX, and I’m sure your recipe for quasiquotes will come in handy.

  5. Comment posted by Phillip Patriakeas on

    This is paraphrasing, correct? It fits my understanding of the word, certainly.

    In simple cases of paraphrasing, where the original quote is left almost entirely intact except for minor changes to make it fit grammatically with surrounding text, my experience is that such modifications are marked directly with square brackets. For example, the “He said he ‘had just been too busy’.” example from the first scan would be written as something like “He said he ‘[had] just been too busy’.”

    Also, I object to your use of <del/> to emulate quasiquotes: the del element has a specific semantic meaning in HTML making it inappropriate to use in this case; I would instead suggest something like <span style="text-decoration: line-through; /* more CSS to make it look good */">"</span>; the CSS can be put behind a class, e.g. quasiquote, to make it slightly less verbose.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Phillip,

      You’re quite right — the quasiquote represents paraphrasing. And yes, square brackets are often used for editorial interjections or minor changes. It seems to me that quasiquotes are intended for quotations that require more serious surgery, as in the first example from the first definition.

      You’re right to reject my use of <del/>, too! An appropriately-styled span would be much better, semantically speaking.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Comment posted by Martijn van der Ven on

      You could also use CSS to overlay an actual – over the quotation mark. I find this to look much better and balanced then the often extremely thin CSS line-through.

      Here is some demo code I cooked up over at CodePen.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Martijn — I did consider using pseudo-elements to add hyphens to existing quotes, and your example looks very good!

      The one thing that might exercise the typographers out there (if the quasiquote’s visual appearance doesn’t already) is that hyphens aren’t always designed to be simple, straight bars. They can have curved end caps, for instance, or they may undulate a little, almost like tildes. Chopping one of these asymmetrical hyphens in half might result in a slightly odd appearance.

      Regardless, thanks for the comment, and nice work!

  6. Comment posted by Athel Cornish-Bowden on

    I see that your server decided to interpret my opening and closing quotation marks rather than show them as typed. The open quote should be two grave accents, and the closing quote two straight apostrophes.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Athel — ah, okay. I’ll edit the comment accordingly.

  7. Comment posted by Brent Auernheimer on

    This brought back great memories of squeezing tubes of black ink into a mimeograph drum, securing the the stencil to the drum, and turning the wheel — the wikipedia explanation is OK, but could use some work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimeograph . The link you give to a mimeo-in-action video actually shows a spirit duplicator, not a mimeograph. Thanks for the memories!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brent — glad to have been of service!

      Thanks for the note about the YouTube video. I’ll have to try to find a one of an actual mimeograph in action!

  8. Comment posted by leoboiko on

    What about using U+0331 “combining macron below” or U+0320 “combining minus below”? Here are some samples:





    1. Comment posted by leoboiko on

      Sorry—the first set of tests was intended to try out straight quotation marks (U+0022), but the blog software automatically converted them to curly marks (U+201C, U+201D). Let’s try again with a code tag:

    2. Comment posted by leoboiko on

      In my system, both combining characters work just fine in proportional fonts, but they’re visually shifted one character to the right in the monospaced font (used in the code tag above). It’s a shame rendering systems are still so buggy regarding Unicode combining…

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Agreed. A CSS line-through is probably the most robust way to create a quasiquote for now, at least on those platforms that support it.

  9. Comment posted by Frédéric Grosshans on

    I think the correct Unicode combining character to use is U+0335 COMBINING SHORT STROKE OVERLAY, which is in Unicode since the beginning (1.1). With the usual caveats regarding “exotic” unicode construction support :-). However, when the unicode combining works, it is copy-pasteable. This is not the case of rich-text constructions like CSS or TeX.

    "̵Typewriter style double and '̵single'̵ straight quasiquotes"̵

    “̵English style ‘̵smart’̵ quasiquotes”̵

    „̵German style ,̵down and up’̵ quasiquotes”̵

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Frédéric — very true. The copy-paste-friendliness of Unicode overstruck quasiquotes is certainly a nice feature, although as I flip back and forth between my phone, computer and tablet, I have to say that they aren’t quite there yet. A nice try, though!

  10. Comment posted by Angus on

    I was interested to read this post as, having started your book and thinking about punctuation marks, I came up with my own version of this mark a few months ago. It is meant to indicate the sense rather exactness of speech and is a quotation mark with a small break in the middle with the thought that the exactness can escape through the break. I use it for a handwritten report that I regularly do and it is something that both me and the recipient of the report understand.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Angus — interesting! Do you have a picture you might be able to share with the readers of Shady Characters? Feel free to drop me a line if so.

  11. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    Paraphrasing does not require punctuation, at least in English.

    A quotation: They said, “We will come”. The words must be reproduced exactly.

    A quasiquotation: They said that they will come. The original words rephrased to suit a new sentence. The word “that” functions as spoken punctuation. (The linguists have a term for this, but my neurons fail me.)

    Or less precisely: They said they will come. The original meaning, but not necessarily the original words (in my interpretation).

    I believe quasiquotation marks will not catch on because they are not needed. It was just a fanboy fad.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      I agree that it’s possible to paraphrase without quasiquotes, but I can still see situations where they might be useful.

      What if one is “translating” from a related but different dialect? As a Scot, there are lots of terms here that have fairly specific translations in English but that would leave a native English speaker utterly mystified. I can see that quasiquoting a sentence from a Scots speaker might be used to good effect in an English publication.

      And what about journalistic uses? Journalists are encouraged to quote sources as exactly as possible, but I imagine that this could become problematic if a source is overly verbose, colloquial, or profane. Quasiquotes could be used to abbreviate quotes, or when unprintable words must be “translated”, without losing the more general construction of the quote.

      I don’t anticipate quasiquotes suddently taking off in mainstream use, but I think it’s possible to be a little too pessimistic about their chances!

    2. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      “As a Scot, there are lots of terms here that have fairly specific translations in English but that would leave a native English speaker utterly mystified.” Then you have not done your job as a translator. No one speaks Scots over here, but I’ll bet there are lots of Scots words that do not have a simple translation into English. (And those are probably the words that are most dearly beloved.)

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Well, I’m not a translator any more than I’m a typographer, but isn’t there a distinction to be drawn between dialects and languages? I’m envisaging a statement that has the grammatical structure of English, and mostly English words, but with the odd Scottish term thrown in. “That’s a braw hoose”, for instance, which could be rendered as That’s a lovely house.

      And now I think about it, might quasiquotes also come in handy when quoting a translated statement that is provided without the original?

    4. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      A dialect is just a language without prestige. (If Scotland votes for independence, someone will move to have all schools use both Scots Gaelic and Scots English to the exclusion of all other dialects.)

      Listen to immigrants. They enrich English with untranslatable words from their native language. They speak their native language with the English words for new concepts (for example, the verb lunchar in Spanish in New York City).

      As for your last remark, when I study something in translation, I consult two or three translations.

    5. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      I think I’ll steer clear of addressing your first point — we’re straying a little too far from punctuation.

      I am in complete agreement with you about immigrant speakers. English wouldn’t be half the language it is now without them. Again, I’m not sure how this relates to the quasiquote.

      Lastly, what if there is only one version available? A Spanish cyclist at the Tour de France, for instance, interviewed by a Spanish-speaking journalist who writes for an English newspaper but does not publish the original quotation — and nor does the cyclist give quite the same interview twice. Is there not a case for making it clear that this is a translation? As I said earlier, I don’t anticipate quasiquotes suddently taking off in mainstream use, but is it not possible to at least envisage a situation in which they might be useful?

  12. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    Oh BTW, I think the little horizontal lines you created for the quasiquotes are too thin, esthetically speaking. I believe I am looking at the Cambria font. Maybe it looks different in your setup.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      You’ll be seeing Constantia, I think. The lines seem fairly thick to me, but then I’m not a typographer!

    2. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      Either way, line-through is much thinner than a hyphen or (most?) dashes. (I usually do not allow websites to change the font — for legibility — I can’t tell whether you are sick or from Illinois in most sans fonts; I have told Firefox to use Cambria.)

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Ah, I see. Well, my simple text-decoration: line-through formatting was just a stop-gap. I think we’ve covered all the little hacks that might be used to create quasiquotes here in the comments — the baton will have to be passed to the professionals from this point on!

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