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Thursday, February 7, 2008

The "Egregious" Misuse of Quotation Marks

Through Neil Gaiman's blog, I surfed over to a site called The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, which is a delightful collection of photos showing misuse of quotation marks, like this "one":

The maker of this sign sure loves misusing quotation marks (and ellipses, for that matter), but she just can't bring herself to close out the sentence with a period, can she?

The misuse of quotation marks has been irksome to me for many, many years, even before I became a language geek. But it's not the most annoying of grammatical errors; on the contrary, it can be rather amusing.

I remember many years ago my family was taking our annual trip to Southern Utah to catch the Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City. On the way down, we noticed that most semi-trucks have a little compartment on the side of their rigs that houses a fire extinguisher. Most of the doors to these compartments have a variation of this message written on them (note that the quotation marks are actually part of the message):

"Fire Extinguisher inside"

We began making fun of the misused quotation marks, and at one point, my brother said, "They're either lying about there being a fire extinguisher inside, or they're quoting some other truck's fire extinguisher compartment." We had a good laugh at that.

So why do so many people enthusiastically misuse quotation marks? Well, there are many correct uses for quotation marks, which is probably where some of the confusion stems from. Here are some instances of correct quotation mark use:

1) Quoting statements verbatim

My teacher said to me, "You have mastered your use of quotation marks!"

2) Referring to a word as the word itself, instead of its meaning.

The word "blog" is a relatively new coinage; new words are created all the time.

3) To say "so-called" without using those words

The "War on Terror" is really an attempt to incite fear in Americans, and thereby control them.

4) Signifying the title of an article

I wrote a blog article called "The 'Egregious' Misuse of Quotation Marks".

5) To show that you don't really mean what you say (to be ironic):

I've made you a "delicious" meat pie!

And here are a couple prevalent misuses of quotation marks:

1) Adding emphasis to a word or phrase

This is the most common misuse, and it's what the sign makers on the hot chocolate picture above were attempting. But this type of emphasis is best added by bolding, italicizing, or underlining, and sometimes by CAPPING, depending on your preference or the amount of emphasis you want.

Incorrect: Quotation marks are "not" an appropriate means of adding emphasis.
Correct: Quotation marks are not an appropriate means of adding emphasis.

2) Setting off a slogan or trademark

There's no need to use quotes for slogans or trademarks. Just write the phrase without them, or use a TM or circle R if it's a trademark.

Misusing quotation marks is amusing for all the people who know better and get to laugh at you. But if you don't want to be laughed at, then follow this rule of thumb: When in doubt, leave them out.

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Sovknight said...

I like it when you become Grammar Girl and go off on a topic this this. I think there should be more of that on the Internet, which is a cesspool of horrid grammar and spelling. For English majors like myself, it's almost painful to read blogs or web pages sometimes. In fact, I think you may have given me the idea for an upcoming blog of my own.

I looked over that page you linked to, and I almost became mental over some of those signs. Thanks for the laugh.

Sra said...

It's nauseating isn't it? Sometimes I run into little gems like that website and I have to shake my head incredulously. A lot of people really are that stupid.

I have to try to find a balance between the evil grammarian and the curious linguist in me, because sometimes evil grammarians need to just take a chill pill about language usage. But there are still some things that really irk me on a personal level, so I like to go off on little rants about them.

Hey I didn't spend four years on this stuff in college so that I could just sit on my hands and ignore grammatical ignorance, did I? No, way. For one thing, it makes you look stupid, even if you actually aren't. But everyone is allowed some slip ups. I'm sure my blog isn't perfect, and nobody likes nitpickers anyway.

But when there is a trend of misuse, it either means language is changing, or a whole lot of people really missed out on their English lessons. (Which isn't really fair, because I know that I for one learned a lot more about English grammar by studying German than I ever did in an "English" class [they are really literature classes].)

But I find grammar and language beautiful and fascinating, so you can count on seeing more posts in the subject.

Loralee Choate said...

I get pretty lazy on my blog, but it's usually all the time I can spend on it. I'm not hideous, but I definitely make tons of errors.

I usually have very little time to produce a post and have found if I get too wrapped up in it I freak out about publishing anything. I don't know if I'd have a blog at all.

Still, there are somethings that almost make my retina's bleed.

Sra said...

I try not to edit myself during the writing process. It's my style to just write stuff out stream of consciousness and then go back and try to make sense of it. If I try to make it perfect as I write or think too much about structure and organization, I get horrible writer's block. Maybe my posts would be better if I thought more about structure, but I don't want to turn my blogging into a chore. This is a place for me to be free with my thoughts. But I do try to clean up the basic grammar and spelling once I finish a post.

Anonymous said...

Editing is my life, which means that some of the most neutral interactions, conversations, and random readings can become ridiculously adversarial, engaging, or just plain angst-a-licious. And it's all my fault.
So much for introductions. On to one of the examples: I'm not sure there wasn't some deliberate, if awkward, humor in the "once" sign: if pronounced a bit creatively, "once" can become "ones," especially when there are two "one's" (see what I mean by ridiculous?) that follow. Hence, "Helping yourself 'once' " can be a side-splitting play on "ones." Or not.

Sra said...

Alright, that would cover "once", but how would you explain the quotation marks around the "one"'s?

I think that explanation is reaching quite a bit. It's the type of explanation people use when they want to find evidence for their theory instead of deriving a theory from the evidence, you know what I mean? A little too abstract and interpretive, and I think rather unlikely. For one thing, I've never heard anyone pronounce once as ones, and I think it's rather a leap to even mentally connect those pronunciations. That's just me though.

Thanks for commenting, though, I appreciate it :)

Anonymous said...

The reaching is more than a bit. But the explanation came to me in one of those ooh-I-guess-what-they-meant-was visions. I must get myself to the ophthalmologist without delay. These visions are exhausting :)

Sra said...

Ha ha ha! Yes, I don't recommend having any more of those visions!

Katie Peterson said...

My friend, Dave pointed out a sign over a drinking fountain at work that reads: "NO" Tabacco Chewing Gum Coffee to be put in the drinking fountain. Translation: Go ahead and put it in, just don't let anyone catch you (wink).

Sra said...

Will the madness never end?

deadbambi said...

Two other examples of collective grammatical psychosis are the use of orientated and irregardless.

Sra said...

Orientated -- that's one I've not heard before! Irregardless is nauseating, indeed.

I still want someone to explain to me why iterate and reiterate mean the same thing and are both considered proper English.

Anonymous said...

Multiple exclamation marks always drives me mad.

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Anonymous said...

The reaching is more than a bit. But the explanation came to me in one of those ooh-I-guess-what-they-meant-was visions. I must get myself to the ophthalmologist without delay. These visions are exhausting :)

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