Quotations. Most writers and speakers use them. I avoid them. Using someone else's words isn't fair to those whose words are quoted.

I've written millions of words — 6,000 editorials, 1,000 speeches, hundreds of newspaper columns, a few books. "What's it about?" someone asks. I cringe. If I could explain it in 25 words, I would have done so the first time around. It was hard enough to get my thoughts into 247 words for an editorial ... or 750 words for a column ... or 5,000 words for a speech ... or 200,000 words for a book.

It's hard work to choose words and organize them into sentences ... and have the sentences flow together in meaningful paragraphs ... and have the paragraph on Page 10 relate to the paragraph on Page 75.

One cannot extract one phrase or one sentence, put it in quotation marks, and pretend it represents the thinking of the author. That's like taking one flower from a painting by Monet or one stanza from a symphony by Beethoven and pretending you have captured the artist's meaning.

I'm no Monet or Beethoven, but to me, words, sentences and paragraphs are building materials for the architecture of ideas. And whether you're building a garage or a 30-story building, you can't remove even one brick without leaving a hole in the structure. And you can't expect one brick to fairly represent the entire building.

Technology makes it easy to overuse, abuse and misuse words of others. One might quote from Shakespeare: "The honour of a maid is her name; and no legacy is so rich as honesty." Or one might choose these words from the same Shakespeare: "What a fool Honesty is! and Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman!"

One can support almost any point of view by carefully selecting biblical passages. Is it "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot"? Or is it "Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also"?

When someone tells me Shakespeare said, "What a fool Honesty is," I wonder if he or she read "The Winter's Tale" or merely chose a few words from Bartlett's. Similarly, when someone says "turn the other cheek," I wonder if he or she understands the New Testament or merely used an electronic search engine to isolate a few words from Matthew.

Written works are meant to be read in their entirety, just as a symphony is meant to be heard in full. The issue is not whether the string section lacked enthusiasm, as critics write, but whether listeners came away feeling emotionally, spiritually or intellectually uplifted (or distressed, if that was the artist's intent). The same with a painting or a written work. You need not remember all the words of Shakespeare in order to learn from his work.

And if you remember only "To be or not to be; that is the question," then you don't do justice to Shakespeare.

The important thing is what remains with you after the words have been forgotten, after the music has faded away, after the painting is no longer visible. You are the sum total of all these experiences. What you think is a product of what you read, hear and experience.

Your friends are more interested in how these things have come together in you than in how they came together for Shakespeare. They are more interested in what you think than in what Shakespeare wrote. No doubt, he said it better than you can, but that is not the issue. If your listeners want to learn what Shakespeare believed, they should read his works — not his quotations, but his works.

If one's wisdom comes from watching "American Idol," so be it. But you should not blame poor Bill Shakespeare just because he wrote a sentence which agrees with you. Have the courage of your own convictions, wherever they originated. Learn to put your own ideas into your own words. Thought has no value unless it can be expressed in words. And your experiences have no value unless they are transformed into thought and then expressed in your own words.

Sometimes, words deserve to be inside quotation marks, but more often than not quotation marks become little more than a "fast food" substitute for thinking.


G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words, Inc. He was formerly editorial director at KSL. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Utah and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Southern Utah University. He hopes to be widely read but seldom quoted. E-mail: dongale@words3.com