Quotation 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’!Email this Post