The ‘emphatic’ use of quotation marks

Posted by on March 03, 2014

© GettyQuotation marks, also known as inverted commas, are normally used for quotation, as their American name suggests, or to mark a title (book, film, etc), or to enclose a foreign, technical, or otherwise potentially unfamiliar word. Standard use of these marks encompasses variation: they can be single or double, and may be punctuated differently around stops, depending on local conventions.

Quotation marks can also highlight that a word is being used somehow peculiarly – a writer may wish to indicate irony, inaccuracy, or scepticism, for example; used this way, they’re called scare quotes. In the line: At the party I met a teacher, a journalist, and an ‘artist’, the scare quotes around artist act as a distancing device, probably signalling doubt about the person’s credentials as an artist. The effect is similar to the Irish phrase mar dhea.

The Oxford Manual of Style says scare quotes may serve ‘to hold up a word for inspection, as if by tongs, providing a cordon sanitaire between the word and the writer’s finer sensibilities’. It’s a technique that quickly wears thin, so style guides sometimes caution against its excessive use. And there’s a related problem: non-standard emphasis.

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish – the very opposite impression to what’s intended.

If you saw a window sign for ‘homemade’ stew or a label promising ‘delicious’ waffles, would the punctuation affect how you imagine the food? What about a cosmetic product that’s ‘good’ for your hair, or a claim that a service is ‘free’? Are you feeling trustful?

Lexicographer Grant Barrett endorses the use of quotation marks for emphasis, saying you have to go out of your way to misread them. But while the intention behind these messages is surely straightforward and sincere, people can be fussy about this sort of thing. And sometimes the connotations are strongly negative, as in ‘confidential’ surveys and a name you can ‘trust’.

Nor is emphasis the only reason for wayward quotation marks: the motivation for their use is sometimes more mysterious. A couple of years ago Orin looked at the difficulties quotation marks pose for computers processing language, but people can be stumped by them too. What are we to make of a bouzoukia from ‘Greece’, a basket for your ‘shopping’, or ‘sexy’ artificial trees? I’d be ‘very interested’ to hear your thoughts. No, ‘really’!

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Comments (12)
  • Great post Stan 🙂

    “Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used.”

    Interesting, I’ve not come across many examples of people using quotation marks for simple emphasis/stress. For me, the use of quotation marks in running prose is all about the ‘lack of trust’ nuance, so in your last example: ‘Greece’ = e.g.: ‘purportedly from Greece (but actually from China ….)

    When you say you’re ‘interested’, this, for me, would always imply a sense of being disingenuous.

    It’s all about pretense/deception – the idea of having to acknowledge that a concept has this word as its identifier but wanting to make it clear that the instance is not a reliable/stereotypical realisation.

    Posted by Kerry on 3rd March, 2014
  • Interesting post, Stan. A couple of related strategies are:
    (1) the expression “quote unquote“: evidence suggests this is sometimes used in the same ironic/sceptical way as yours, but it sometimes indicates that someone really did say this, but the person reporting it wants to distance themselves from it (e.g. because they think it’s distasteful), as in this corpus line: “He said he was barred admission to the high school of his choice because there were too many, quote unquote, Chinese Americans”. Hmmm
    (2) currently popular in the UK thanks to comedian Miranda Hart is the expression “what I call…”. Miranda’s mother introduced this, saying things like “I’m going for a, what I call massage” (when she’s just going for a massage). Hart’s website has a message saying “Welcome to my, what I call website”. There is a tiny bit of corpus evidence to suggest this is catching on…maybe we’ll find more in the next year (after Miranda’s “My what I call live tour”, which is about to begin).

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 3rd March, 2014
  • Kerry: Many examples in the “Quotation Mark” Abuse Flickr pool I would classify – emphatically! – as emphatic. Others are trickier to interpret. What’s clear is that there’s a lot of confusion over how to use the marks. Or a lot of variety, if I’m being nicer about it.

    Michael: “Quote unquote” is definitely used along the same lines sometimes. Thanks for the example. “What I call” is an interesting development, and not one I was aware of (being only vaguely familiar with Miranda Hart). It sounds like one to watch. Your comment reminds me of a very suggestive quotation mark sign: “MASSAGE” BY SALVADOR.

    Posted by Stan on 3rd March, 2014
  • Thanks for the link Stan – Oh wow – some ‘lovely’ examples in those photos! I suspect there might be a variety thing going on here – how many of those photos are of UK provenance? I would guess only a minority. Would be prepared to stick my neck out and say that I think this kind of ‘abuse’ is less common in speakers of British English ….

    Posted by Kerry on 4th March, 2014
  • I suspect you’re right, Kerry, that relatively few are from the UK. It may be the case that if the practice gets a foothold somewhere it’s more likely to spread, through imitation. Or maybe other factors are more significant.

    Posted by Stan on 4th March, 2014
  • A couple of illustrative anecdotes:

    Back in the day I used to argue with creationists, and on one occasion a particularly zealous Biblical literalist raised the old claim of a museum with a fossil hat among its exhibits. But in the photograph he showed me, the exhibit in question was labelled not as a fossil hat, but as a “fossil” hat. I tried to explain, saying something like, “Look, the word ‘fossil’ is in quotation marks on the museum signage, and they wouldn’t have written it that way if they actually thought it was a fossil”, but as far as I remember, the creationist looked at me as if I was talking complete gibberish. Whether the problem lay entirely in his inability to acknowledge facts that challenged his belief system, or whether, perhaps, he really did lack the literary proficiency to recognise scare quotes, I will never know.

    I also vaguely remember an online conversation where I was curious about how other people used a particular functionality then available on a well-known website (a present-day equivalent would be “which apps do you use” or “which plugins do you use” or any of countless variations). One person who responded — to say that he didn’t use such things at all — consistently put the name of the functionality in quotation marks, as if to say, “I feel uncomfortable even mentioning this vile thing, so here I am holding the word in metaphorical tongs”. Now, if we assume this person was fully literate in English, there can be no doubt these were scare quotes (possibly signalling the objection that the conversation offered free advertising to a proprietary cause, or something). But I think part of why this got under my skin was the doubt … if we *don’t* assume 100% literacy, then it’s possible the person was just not very proficient at using quotation marks and had some other purpose in mind. Or … maybe they *were* scare quotes really, but they wanted plausible deniability.

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 4th March, 2014
  • Adrian: In the “fossil” hat scenario, either explanation sounds plausible. The familiar conventions of quotation mark use evidently escape many people, those of extended uses like scare quotes even more so. But if your listener had wanted to, I imagine he could have learned from you on the spot. So based on limited information I’m leaning towards the cognitive dissonance possibility.

    Posted by Stan on 4th March, 2014
  • […] the BBC and The Guardian take a look back at the man and his favoured typeface; Stan Carey takes on “emphatic” quotation marks at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog; and the intricacies of interpreting seventeenth-century […]

    Posted by Shady Characters » Miscellany № 44: clampersands and dieses on 16th March, 2014
  • Back at the turn of the millennium I wrote a lyric called “Editors’ Waltz” about “what people do to the language they speak”. The second stanza:

    The signs in the market are rather a mess,
    Selling APPLE’S and PEAR’S with apostrophe-S.
    And saying their flounder is quote, “FRESH”, unquote
    Suggests it’s just two or three weeks off the boat.

    Posted by Mark Mandel on 30th March, 2014
  • Nicely done, Mark – that’s a well-worked lyric.

    Posted by Stan on 31st March, 2014
  • […]  And he links to Stan Carey, who amplifies the point: […]

    Posted by Don’t unquote me | Ten minutes past deadline on 24th April, 2014
  • […] MacMillan Dictionary has this to say about scare […]

    Posted by Abusing quotation marks | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary on 10th September, 2014
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