For today’s Can I Get a Ruling: the dread “quotation marks” for “emphasis.”
As I’m sure you all know, quotation marks either denote a direct quote or to show irony or euphemism. They’re not used for emphasis. So…. I don’t care what your sign says, I’m not eating your “fresh” mozzarella.
The improper use of quotations is properly skewered in the hilarious site The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. My particular favorite is the sign that “pool” “closed”, which definitely leaves a lot to the imagination.
What I find especially “odd” about “improper quotation marks” is that it seems to be mainly a generational thing: it’s most common among people over the age of 50. Was there a golden era of quotation marks where they were used for emphasis and we “younguns” just don’t know what we’re “talking about?”
What’s the story on “incorrect” quotation marks? Anyone?
I guees that is why it is good to read blogs to learn things, because when I read Encarta I didn't get it.
This is their description. "either of a pair of punctuation marks, either in double (" ") or single (' ') form, used around direct speech, quotations, and titles, or to give special emphasis to a word or phrase"
I have seen something along the lines – We are "not" going to the party. -to stress the word not, and it never even crossed my mind it was wrong.
Yup, anon, that's it. Of course, that line is only wrong if they really aren't going to the party… if they're saying they aren't but hinting ironically they really are, then the punctuation is right.
Oh the illogic of language. Maybe we should all just learn Elvish or something. I'm sure Tolkien did it better.
Marilyn Peake says
Can anyone tell me what asterisks/stars (*) around a word means? I see this a lot on the Internet…or *Internet*. Are the asterisks surrounding a word actually misplaced quotation marks, used for emphasis?
Emma GRIEVE says
Where text cannot be formatted, the convention is to indicate formatting through punctuation marks, namely *bold*, /italics/ and _underscore_.
It was very kind of you not to get frustrated with me. Notice I didn't use quotation marks.
Lol, anon. That was funny.
HaH, Brian, you were serious, no quotation marks! Right? : )
– no quotation marks 😉
This blog discussion should be retitled:
(For years I avoided writing dialogue because of the quotation confusion.)
It is no wonder so many of us feel so pleased as punch when we learn how to do a writing thing right.
From the story to the sentence structure we travel a long and twisting road. Not all the maps we were given seem to be describing the same route either.
It is so cool that so many of us can laugh at ourselves over this!
I usually see the * for emphasis or to set something apart, as in to denote actions or something. Such as:
I love *cough cough* Michael Bolton.
So it's a way to handle two different levels of communication at the same time. But that's just my subjective understanding of it from time spent cyber-cruising. And since I'm a techno-rube you might not want to trust me…
Marilyn Peake says
Thanks, Bryan. I appreciate all attempts to interpret the use of *. I used to think it was the computer misreading some other symbol.
On the "internet" quotes are used in searches to "drill down" a search category. Using for emphasis. NEVER, "never" never.
I definitely need to be updated. Actually, I probably never learned correct use anyway. I typically tuned the nuns out. Asterisks? I wonder what else I don't know. Can we have a commonly misused or unknown use blog discussion?
A "blog" dedicated soley to "Unnecessary" quotation marks? Who'd have thought?
This is "like" the third posting in which I have found myself wondering if Nathan were being discriminatory towards older persons.
At first, I thought it was my imagination, but now, I am really beginning to wonder.
In my experience, the real offenders who overuse quotation marks have been teenagers, who are trying to stress something, or “snarky” adults.
I mean, really, Nathan, even if your observation is unbiased, is it necessary to point out age groups to broach a subject or a pet peeve? Why risk giving the wrong impression? Specifically, why did you feel it was necessary to “brand” the over fifty crowd as the offenders? What was the point of that?
I’ve noticed this “oddity” before and I’ve “let it ride”, but really, I feel compelled to ask: “why do you make it about age”? I think the overuse of quotation marks crosses all age groups.
For the record: I am not over fifty. In fact, I'm not "that much" older than you.
Nathan Bransford says
Yes, you "got" me. I "hate" old people. "Hate" them, including my "parents," my older "colleagues" and everyone in the "AARP."
Well "spotted," anon.
Malia Sutton says
I just ignore this one because it doesn't usually happen in speech. And, I think, it's forgiveable for a variety of reasons. Unless, of course, the person doing it is querying an agent. Writers should know better.
What really bothers me are some of the huge grammatical errors I hear in speech on a daily basis (I myself..me and my friend). All you have to do it watch a reality show like "Big Brother" and the mistakes just flow from the mouths of people who think they know it all. And, unfortunately, they come from my generation, usually from people under thirty.
What are they teaching in grade schools these days during English class?
See? You're both stressing a point and being snarky, and you're nowhere near fifty.
Nathan Bransford says
And it "wasn't" even on "purpose." Nope. "Not at all."
Well, I'm under 30, and I have a degree in education. I can tell you that there is not much grammar instruction in schools these days.
In fact, most teachers are as confused about the rules of grammar as their students are. Heck, I was never taught grammar until college… It is a scary, scary world out there!
I'm trying to start a sentence diagramming revolution. If you want to join me, see my site. (English Grammar Revolution)
Can anyone tell me what is proper to show someone stops talking mid-sentence?
If they trail off… (ellipses works)
If they stop abruptly- (a dash usually does the trick)
Thanks, Bryan "Ink", that's what I had been doing, but after todays discussion I wasn't sure if that was the correct way to do it.
You're a really sweet and knowledgable guy.
How do you know how old your query writers are? I've never put my age in a letter. Do others?
Crap, I spelled Knowledgeable wrong!
Nathan Bransford says
It's often clear from the bio. I don't recommend saying your exact age in a query, but I have a sense of the author's age in at least half of the queries I get.
And in all honest, I don't think this is me being ageist or something. It's just something I've noticed. As others mentioned, young people have their own set of grammar/punctuation issues and are much more likely to mess up it's/its.
I'm not the same ANON that asked you that. I think there are at least three ANONS here. I just wondered about the age, because I've never included that and wondered if I was doing something wrong.
There could be dozens of different anons or more at any given time.
We really are not all the same anon.
Dorothy L. Abrams says
Nope, there was no golden age of quotations that I remember. I am an old hippie chick from the 60s who taught English. None of my commrades use random quotation marks for emphasis. Underscores, yes! Exclamation marks? Too often. But not quotation marks. I understood quotation marks placed around words not part of dialog indicated irony. In your example of "fresh" mozarella cheese, I think the quotations marks mean "not so fresh".
Beth F says
I can't possibly read 182 comments so I have no idea if I'm simply repeating information, but quotation marks are not needed for obvious irony or euphemism. In fact, quotation marks are rarely needed, except to indicate direct quotes and certain types of titles (chapters, short stories, songs, short poems, episode titles, journal articles).
I'm not sure why people don't understand quotation marks, but it is not just bloggers who have trouble. Most manuscripts that cross my desk are in serious need of a quotation mark diet.
I find absolutely no age difference.
You continue to inform and educate in a most generous and accessible manner. Have only recently joined this blog and am blown away by your efforts
Heh, I only use quotation marks for emphasis on blogs and forums, because I am to lazy too highlight the text and click the "i" icon or insert the html code for italics. And that points out the other use of quotation marks to make it clear that I am speaking about a specific symbol or operation. If I were doing it properly, it would read: click the i icon …
I've never seen it used as other's have mentioned.
It had certainly been interesting following this thread. I am now so "unsure" of myself I can't write anything without looking it up. Nathan– let's discuss em-dashes next! "Just for fun."
Kate H says
Quotation marks for emphasis have never been correct. I'm old enough to be your mother, Nathan, I'm a copyeditor, and I know. What I don't know is how that ridiculous usage got started. Nor can I explain why people use apostrophes for plurals–also commonly seen in grocery store signs.
And finally, before I get off my high horse, where did people get the idea that an objective pronoun becomes subjective if it's part of a compound object (e.g. "She taught my friend and I how to use quotation marks properly")? No one would ever say "She taught I," so why say "She taught my friend and I"? Grammar is just logic, people.
Bethany Brengan says
I know I'm a little late in the game here, but I have a (completely untested) theory about the quotation-marks/generational-debate.
As an editor, I've seen quotation marks misused by people of various ages, but when I see them misused by people over 50 or so, it tends to be a very specific type of "error." 😉
Quotation marks are (correctly) used to denote slang terms that the reader may not be familiar with. (See https://www1.umn.edu/urelate/style/italics.html or Chicago Manual of Style 7.60). However, some writers have fallen into the habit of using quotation marks around any slang term, even those that are common knowledge, almost as a way of saying, "I want you to know that I know this isn't quite formal/proper English." Thus the quote marks around "Mom" (because it's not mother) and possibly the quote marks around "Love" (because it's not Sincerely?). Eventually, anything that's slightly informal/intimate gets quote marks ("thanks" vs. thank-you, "TV" vs. television, "fridge" vs. refrigerator etc.).
Younger writers don't seem to differentiate between formal and informal English, so they aren't as likely to put quote marks around slang phrases. (This certainly doesn't keep them from misusing quotation marks; they simply seem more likely to use them for incorrect emphasis than for common slang/informal phrases.)
I admit that this doesn't cover all the quotation mark errors of everyone's mother/grandmother (or unmentioned-male-card-writing-relative), but it's a start. Thoughts?
As someone over the age of 50, I have to say I resent the implication that I am more prone to misuse quotation marks.
In the olden days, I had a wonderful teacher who explained the proper use of this punctuations thusly: What does the newspaper headline 'Mayor Leaves Hotel with "Wife"' say to you? Use your quotation marks accordingly.
I never forgot that lesson.
Genella deGrey says
Within a piece of literary art, I think things shouldn't stray from current grammar rules.
But in a *darling* little blog such as this and during _friendly_ repartee, "anything" goes.
Whenever I see quotations, it makes me think they are being sarcastic.
James K. says
On the other hand…can anyone tell me whether quotation marks are correctly used if quoting a sign? [The sign warned: "No Trespassing. Violators will be shot."]
I'm delighted to have found your blog when I was actually searching the use of asterisks around words on twitter. Although I never learned the meaning of asterisks on twitter (emphasis?), I loved reading the misuses of quotations and the comments posted by your readers. I actually emailed Sandra D. Coburn who wrote that her mother sent her greeting cards and underlined (or double underlined) text. My 94-yo mom died last year and I miss every one of her underlined greeting cards.
Using question marks to introduce a technical phrase is one that always confuses me as I see it written this way a lot: e.c. "The 'ironic' quotation is often used to call attention to a word that is shocking or taboo in normal speech." The most confusing part is when the quotation is at the end of the sentence and the writer places the period after the quotation, as in this example: "Many people are now beginning to realize that 'natural capital' is as important to their livelihoods as 'fiscal capital'." Logically that seems correct but "American Standard" English would place the period inside the quotation no matter what because of convention. So the last part of the sentance would look as such, "..livelihoods as 'fiscal capital.'" I tend to think more logically so when I introduce a new term that isn't a direct quotation,I do it the former way.
Using question marks to introduce a technical phrase is one that always confuses me, as I see it written this way a lot: "The 'ironic' quotation is often used to call attention to a word that is shocking or taboo in normal speech." The most confusing part is when the quotation is at the end of the sentence and the writer places the period after the quotation, as in this example: "Many people are now beginning to realize that 'natural capital' is as important to their livelihoods as 'fiscal capital'." Logically that seems correct but "American Standard" English would place the period inside the quotation no matter what, because of convention. So the last part of the sentance would look like so: "..livelihoods as 'fiscal capital.'" I tend to think more logically, so when I introduce a new term that isn't a direct quotation,I do it the former way.
Laura Simms says
CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, 15th Ed., 7.61, p. 294, has ruled on this:
"Terms considered slang or argot should be enclosed in quotation marks only if they are foreign to the normal vocabulary of the writer or likely to be unfamiliar to readers."
I loved your note that this problem occurs in people over 50 and Ryan Smith's description of his mother's notes. Electrical engineers, Ryan's mom, and people over 50 are the problem. I am over 50, but I know better! Thanks for exposing this criminal activity.
David Ripplinger says
@Vegas Linda Lou – You're correct that the widely accepted use of commas and quotations in the U.S. is to put the comma before the closing quotation mark, but keep in mind that other cultures have different widely accepted customs.
Moreover, once the rule is understood, it is understandable for people to argue for a change in our culture's communication customs if the change has some logical reasoning backing it. One could argue for the comma outside the quotations because the quoter and not the quotee is using the comma for structure. When coming from the background of mathematics and computer programming, such an approach makes perfect sense when compared to encapsulation objects, such as parentheses and brackets.
Back in the 60's, I had a weather changing machine that was, in essence, a sophisticated heat beam which we called a "laser." Using these "lasers," we punch a hole in the protective layer around the Earth, which we scientists call the "Ozone Layer." Slowly but surely, ultraviolet rays would pour in, increasing the risk of skin cancer. That is unless the world pays us a hefty ransom.
It drives me insane. Improper quotation marks seem to be most frequently used on diner menus – that's diner with one "n," you know those "restaurants" that are open 24 hours with poorly trained staff and terrible food?
I can't understand how they stay in business serving 100% "beef"