Our Purpose

“…focus attention on selected aspects of the world as it is taken to be by other cognitive systems, and provide intricate and highly specialised perspectives from which to view them, crucially involving human interests and concerns even in the simplest cases”

p. 125, Chomsky, Noam. 2000. Minimalist inquiries: The framework. In: Roger Martin, David Michaels & Juan Uriagereka (eds.), Step by step: Essays on minimalist syntax in honor of Howard Lasnik, 89–155. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

“It is not the object discovered that matters, but the light that falls on it.”

Boris Pasternak

Quotations.ch helps you study, through complete concordances in the context of full source text, how writers use words. Quotations.ch enables exploration of ideas, notions and concepts. Through helping you experience different styles of thought and expression, Quotations.ch helps you sharpen your capacity for thought and crystallise a unique, personal expression style.

What makes Quotations different is its immediacy and interactivity. As soon as you have selected authors or uploaded your texts, any further steps will be near-instantaneous, allowing you to immerse yourself in your favourite literature and engage with your favourite writers, philosophers and thinkers on a deeper level. Alternatively, in the words of George Orwell, simply discover the “the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words.”

As you write – use the Writing Aid tab accessed via Librarian in the main menu – you will receive quotations, based on the words in your writing, from the writers in our library. You can explore any quotation in the context of the full source text. Alternatively, you can look up – use the Words tab – complete concordances for any word in the context of the full source text. To set the framework on the basis of which you will receive advice and concordances, select any author or upload texts in the Books tab.

Whether you are writing in the Writing Aid or looking-up words in the Words tab, quotations, from your selected writers, will appear instantly (note: function words are excluded). In the Writing Aid, if you wish to examine any word in your writing in greater detail, double-click on that word and find quotations with all the instances of usage for that word by the writers of your selection (a complete concordance). As instantly, by clicking on any quotation, access the full original text and explore the word usage in a context wider than the single sentence ordinarily found in a dictionary. Selecting any word in the Words tab will also give you a complete concordance for that word.

We have attempted to make our library as comprehensive as possible (and we are continuing to expand it – see the Books Tab or look up the list here); as discussed, if the writers you love are not (yet) included in our library, you are welcome to add their texts to Quotations, for your personal use (use Add Text in the Books Tab; note our advice on this matter).

All the words in our library – all the words used by our authors – are linked to a “Wiktionary” entry (see the Words tab), which will allow you to look up the definition and meaning of any unfamiliar word.

When you start writing, remember the advice that Robert Louis Stevenson gave to a pupil:

“…Never…bother with English grammar.”

R. L. Stevenson (from A. O’Hagan’s Essay on R. L. Stevenson and his Friends, Bournemouth)

“Drawing everything one can from words”

Quotations is about “drawing everything one can from words” – we paraphrase Vladimir Nabokov. The writer tells us:

 “One must draw everything one can from words, because it’s the one real treasure a true writer has. Big general ideas are in yesterday’s newspaper. If I like to take a word and turn it over to see its underside, shiny or dull or adorned with motley hues absent on its upperside, it’s not at all out of idle curiosity, one finds all sorts of curious things by studying the underside of a word – unexpected shadows of other words, harmonies between them, hidden beauties that suddenly reveal something beyond the word. Serious wordplay, as I have in mind, is neither a game of chance nor a mere embellishment of style. It’s a new verbal species that the marvelling author offers to the poor reader, who doesn’t want to look; to the good reader, who suddenly sees a completely new facet of an iridescent sentence.”

V. Nabokov (from an Interview with Bernard Pivot on Apostrophes)

Robert Louis Stevenson gives this advice:

 “Think about the place you love best: a house, a garden, anything you choose. See it first in your own mind, then, when you get home write a short description of it. …If you want me to see your gardens,…don’t, for pity’s sake, talk about “climbing roses” or “green, mossy lawns”. Tell me, if you like, that roses twined themselves around the apple trees and fell in showers from the branches. Never dare to tell me again anything about “green grass”. Tell me how the lawn was flecked with shadows.”

R. L. Stevenson (from A. O’Hagan’s Essay on R. L. Stevenson and his Friends, Bournemouth)

Two very different authors, living in different centuries, emphasize the same principals. “Climbing roses” and “green grass” that Stevenson begs not to mention are Nabokov’s “general ideas…in yesterday’s newspaper”; Stevenson’s “roses…twined themselves around the apple trees and fell in showers from the branches” might be an “iridescent sentence”, in Nabokov’s sense, that makes you “see” the “garden”.

Stevenson also tells us:

“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.”

R. L. Stevenson (A Gossip on Romance, Memories and Portraits)

If you do not care about gardens or roses, or if you do not care about being a writer, “it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language”, in the words of Josef Brodsky, yet for another reason:

“Now and in times to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success – although those, too, can be consequences – nor is it to turn you into parlour sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourself as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That does not go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis – and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with the magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap. But even the most expensive among them cost far less than a visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit, nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.”

Some Tips Joseph Brodsky

Mastering word usage and exploring concepts will assist you with clarity of thought and precision of expression however you choose to articulate yourself. Anything that you write or say will “absorb” your readers or listeners, present “a thousand coloured pictures” to their mind’s eye and, last but not least, equip you with a sense of emotional balance.

Enjoy Quotations.ch (use GUIDE to find answers to any technical questions you might have); get in touch with us with any thoughts (admin@quotations.ch; https://twitter.com/QuotationsC; substack), and, most importantly, make your own “iridescent” sentences.

Related Resources

As discussed, we link all the words in the library to their Wiktionary entries. However, it is wise to use multiple dictionaries. Try the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary. It is the most comprehensive and detailed dictionary you can find. Explore Merriam and Webster or The Free Dictionary, for a concise overview of the full range of meanings of a word. Use the historical thesaurus of the University of Glasgow to study the development of meaning over time. The Emily Dickinson Lexicon will introduce you to the 19th century American English.

Should you decide to ignore Steveson’s advice and work on your grammar, try Grammarly, an excellent tool for basic grammar training.

George Orwell’s Why I Write on the writer’s motivation:

…I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful business men – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition – in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose – using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

Why I Write George Orwell

Literature and Thought

Excerpts from interviews with scholars and writers on creative process and interaction between literary expression and thought:

The Concept of Language, with N. Chomsky

by UW Video (formerly UWTV), a video channel by the University of Washington.

The full interview is here.

Interviewer: How does language differ in the way that is used in the arts?

Chomsky: First of all, there is a variety of conventions – formal conventions that are humanly created but undoubtedly reflect our aesthetic capacity – they set a framework of rule, humanly imposed rule, within which people create. An extreme case: if you write a sonnet, you have to come pretty close to a fixed frame. This is an extreme case. The same is true of other literary conventions. Part of the human creative invention has been to create forms – aesthetic forms which are somehow either appealing to us or a challenge our intelligence… You work within them… After all, painting a painting on a piece of canvass that has a boundary – that is pretty recent in human history. That is a framework that itself determines the kind of art that you can produce. In the literary use of language, everything, from the structure of a novel to the metric character of a poetic form, is one or another human invention.  

Interviewer: Do you respond to poetry?

Chomsky: I… Sure… (If I have time to read it…)

Interviewer: Does it make you think differently? What goes on in your thought process?

Chomsky: It is a topic that has been discussed quite intelligently. For example, if you read, say, William Emson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, you get an intriguing account of why poetry makes you think. In part, because it is so compressed. And you only get hints; the reader has to impose a lot of structure…

Interviewer: You have to put your own self into it…

Chomsky: And, in part, because the formal structure itself imposes a challenge to the intelligence. If you are just trying to paint around randomly, it is not a work of art. When it is done within the framework of a humanly constructed system of rule, at least you have the prerequisites for the work of art; it still may not be. Whatever creativity is, and that is not understood, that has to be there too…

Robert Graves on creative process

The full interview is here.

Graves: …a cloud descends on you, you do not know what’s happening; then you suddenly realise that there is something, some problem of extreme importance that’s got to be solved, then you realise there is a poem around, and then, suddenly, two words or three words come to your mind and that gives a start, and then you write the poem, and it’s as though the poem has already been written, and you are trying to reconstitute it; you have got the poem as something already there; you have got to get back to the original, your original view of it, and so you work hard and hard to get it back to something near what it really is, was, would be…

Interviewer: Could it be compared to a mystical experience?

Graves: Of course, it is mystical…

Interviewer: Do you feel that you have succeeded at times in doing this, in getting this thing out?

Graves: When you find the poem, and you can’t do anything more to it, then you put it away.

Interviewer: But you keep on revising it?

Graves: It is easy to cheat yourself, and very often you think that you have written the poem that is alright and then after time you realise that in some slight way you have cheated…

Seamus Heaney on poetic expression

The full article is here.

“…the double nature of poetry. On the one hand, poetry could be regarded as magical incantation, fundamentally a matter of sound and of the power of sound to bind our minds’ and bodies’ apprehensions within an acoustic complex. On the other hand, poetry is a matter of making wise and true meanings, of commanding our emotional assent by the intelligent disposition and inquisition of human experience. In fact, most poems – including Auden’s – constitute temporary stays against the confusion threatened by the mind’s inclination to accept both accounts of poetic function in spite of their potential mutual exclusiveness. But ‘confusion’ is probably far too strong a word, since Auden is able to make a resolving parable of the duality, assigning the beauty/magic part to Ariel and the truth/meaning part to Prospero and proposing that every poem, indeed every poet, embodies a dialogue between them. Ariel stands for poetry’s enchantment, our need to be bewitched: ‘We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence.’ This want, of course, if fully indulged, would lead poetry into self-deception – hence the countervailing presence of Prospero, whose covenant is with ‘truth’ rather than ‘beauty’ – ‘and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.’”

Langston Hughes on James Baldwin’s writing

From Feb. 26, 1956  NYT Book Review; Hughes reviews Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

“And he uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing. …words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry and the poetry illuminates the thought.”

Ocean Vuong on creativity and language

The full interview is here.

…I tell my students: your brain is probably telling you something important. It’s saying you’re not ready. Take that image with you. Go on a walk and live your life; and maybe something about your life – you pay attention to it – can show you how to write that thing. Don’t fight it. So much of our culture is bent on fighting – David and Goliath, wrestling the muse. We look at creation as a battleground. And I think it’s one of the greatest detriments to creativity is to see ourselves as participants in a war when it should be participants in creation.

…I was angry…I was tired…exhaustion…as a species…I think it is exhaustion and danger that creates creativity – how do I get out of here? how do I build this fish trap – it is always the question – that moment of innovating beyond your condition begins with fatigue, exhaustion and discontent…

I was raised by women who had only language; and they talked forever; all they did was talk; they talked while they worked; they talked while they bathed you; they talked while they cooked for you; they talked while sitting, while walking; … My grandmother would say stuff like that: “You go down, you stir this pot until you chant five prayers to buddha”; and so the voice became a measurement of time; so I was always charged with it; …

Edmund Wilson on Joyce’s portrayal of human consciousness

From the article:

…these voices are used to record all the eddies and stagnancies of thought; though exercising a severe selection which makes the book a technical triumph, Mr. Joyce manages to give the effect of unedited human minds, drifting aimlessly along from one triviality to another, confused and diverted by memory, by sensation and by inhibition. It is, in short, perhaps the most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness.