Quotation Marks Have Many Uses, But ‘This’ Is Not One

I covered a lot of elections during my days pounding the pavement for local newspapers, and those elections often elicited an immense amount of passion from residents. When I worked in central Illinois, one particularly passionate gentleman decided to make and distribute yard signs encouraging others to vote in favor of a particular initiative.

I don’t remember what that initiative was, though that does not matter in this frame, but I do remember this man’s signs, because they included a commonly mispurposed punctuation: quotation marks.

The signs asked residents to vote yes on the contested initiative, but there were quotation marks encasing the word yes, as if the word was being or had been spoken. Or maybe this gentleman was trying to get out the vote via the power of sarcasm. By telling people to vote “yes,” with quotation marks, was he really casting doubt on the word “yes” and implying they should vote no?

Of course, common sense led me to believe that this man probably had no overly clever or overtly devious plan with his sign. He surely was promoting a yes vote. In all likelihood, he added quotation marks to his sign for emphasis; he really wanted everyone to vote yes and felt the need to call attention to the word by putting it between quotation marks.

Unfortunately, that was not the correct course of action.

The most common use of quotation marks are, as evidenced by the punctuation’s name, to show a reader that words have been previously said or are being said. There is no need to quote yourself, so generally quotations marks surround rhetoric that could be assumed as yours if it were not for the placement of the marks. When you put quotation marks around a word or phrase that’s not part of a quotation, you are either implying that this word or phrase is new or unfamiliar to the reader (For example, “Wizards play a sport called ‘Quidditch.’”), or that the word or phrase is being used in an ironic sense (Example: The “investigation” resulted in no findings or new discovery.). And if your readers are familiar with the word in question—the word investigation or yes, in the initial example—then they’ll read it ironically.

Basically, putting quotation marks around a word or words that have not been spoken is the written equivalent of using air quotes, like your friends do humorously in casual conversation or as Dr. Evil famously demonstrates in the iconic Austin Powers movie series. It implies the word or words should not be taken seriously. Often, it implies you mean exactly the opposite of what you’re saying.

There are other appropriate but seldom necessary uses for quotation marks, as well. Associated Press asks quotation marks be used around artistic compilations, like song, movie, and book titles. The punctuation marks are also used to surround a subject’s nickname, when applicable. Quotations marks are not appropriate for emphasis in any style, but, when someone mistakenly attempts to use quotation marks for this reason, the results can be disastrous.

If a store advertises “fresh” fish, you have to wonder how long it’s been sitting there. If a company promises “competitive pay,” do you consider looking elsewhere for a better salary? If a bathroom stall door says “do not use,” can you assume that whatever is behind that door is totally OK to use? Those examples all came from the entertaining blog (if you too are a word nerd) Unnecessaryquotes.com, where there are many more great examples to be found. You should definitely check out the site. Notice the bold type used to represent emphasis. Quotation marks would call my suggestion into question.
If you want to emphasize a particular word, do not put quotation marks around it. For example, if you said, “Josh Groban is the ‘best’ singer ever,” that would hurt my feelings (and Mr. Groban’s, probably), because it would imply that he is not, in fact, the best singer there ever has been. Instead, try emphasizing the word by making it bold or italic.

While wildly understood, using all capital letters for emphasis is not recommended. In our ever-important digital world, all-caps has become synonymous with emphasis on a more intense level. It will make it seem like you’re shouting. (Maybe you want to, but in general, no one likes being shouted at, so be careful.)

Another clarification I am compelled to make, because quotation marks always intermix with other punctuation, is that periods and commas should always go inside quotation marks. Other punctuation, however, should only go inside the quotation marks when they are part of the material being quoted, such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Otherwise, the mark should be placed outside the quotation marks, as in: Have you ever seen “Gone With the Wind”?
I hope you find those tips useful, but if you have one takeaway from this column, please let it be this: Do not use quotation marks for emphasis—especially if you’re making campaign signs.

About the author

Amanda Jacobs is a grammar expert who worked at 22nd Century Media as chief copy editor and editor for three years. She is currently a public relations specialist at the American Academy of Dermatology.

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