>What is the proper usage of "quote unquote," as in "Bob told me he's
>quote unquote semi-retired?"  I would imagine it's "...quote semi-retired
>unquote," although I almost never hear it used that way.  The first usage
>seems a lot more popular.
Sure does. There's a reason, of course. As you surmise, the two ways of making verbal quotes are identical in intent, and in fact identical with the gesture of drawing "quotes" in the air with one's index and middle fingers (the "V" fingers) on both hands. This may be just an American gesture, but I suspect it's common enough. This is often accompanied by an "ironic" intonation on the item that is to be "quoted" in any of these usages.

The pragmatic sense is to bracket the item in question in exactly the same way philosophers do with what they call "scare quotes", that is, a warning that the writer does not take responsibility for the correctness of any description, thus effectively saying the writer believes something like the reverse of the description.

But this is a convention of written language. What you describe is one way that spoken English can also avail itself of that convention. It can provide "quotes" by saying quote. Rather like Lisp. Cool.

Now what about the unquote? If you have a lengthy quotation, you need to know where both ends are. So we say unquote at the end (incidentally making spoken English more like printing -- where the beginning and ending quotation marks are different -- than like ASCII, where they're identical). Lisp doesn't need to mark the end of the quote; this is where all those parentheses come in handy. Also cool.

However, if you are doing scare quotes in speech, and thereby taking your chances with the listener's short-term memory, chances are you're targeting only one word or phrase -- one phonological unit in any case -- and you don't really need to mark the end; it's obvious. All you really need is a marker at the beginning to warn your parter to listen ironically.

So "quote-unquote" becomes a compound prefixal particle, and you don't have to worry about the other shoe falling. Much the same fate overtook the as far as ... is concerned/goes constructions, and the so [Adjective] that ... construction. The last parts of these are simply dropped in many cases. And I've heard people say just "quote" (without the "-unquote") in this usage, as well as the doublet.

As far as usage of the construction is concerned, I'd say it's gone too far to separate the two now. Besides, it sounds insufferably pedantic to insist on quote word unquote; and -- the clincher -- you would never write it, because you could use real quotes. So it's exclusively colloquial, and "proper" written usage is therefore irrelevant, because there isn't any.

That's why it sounds better. As Peter Schickele says (about music), if it sounds good, it is good.

  - John Lawler       Linguistics Department and Residential College     University of Michigan

    "Language is the most  massive  and  inclusive  art  we know,  a           - Edward Sapir
      mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations."       Language (1921)

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