Love English

Quote unquote

Readers of this blog who have absorbed Stan Carey’s peek into the future of apostrophe use should prepare themselves for another possible future shock: quotation marks (which Brits, but never Americans, like to call inverted commas) have a career that is also not entirely secure, owing to their erratic and unpredictable behavior. Quotation marks are so often abused, and so variously used, that readers are often left to speculate, rather hazily, about how they are intended to influence the meaning of text. Computers that attempt to process text can often make no dependable sense of humans’ use of the squiggly marks.

Unnecessary or improperly used quotation marks are fairly easy to spot in the wild. There’s even a blog devoted to them, the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotes. It is impossible in most cases to peer into the mind of the user of unnecessary quotation marks because they are often known only after the fact, when they appear on a sign (usually homemade and temporary) or advertisement (usually local and not the product of an advertising agency). “What were they thinking?”, you may ask yourself when you see quotation marks that are not needed. The answer may well be that the writer wasn’t thinking at all. Quotation marks have so many quasi-legitimate, off-label uses that they are in danger of becoming a free for all, but possibly not good for much.

The Wikipedia article about quotation marks notes that they may be used for:

1    Quotations and speech
2    Irony
3    Signaling unusual usage
4    Use–mention distinction
5    Titles of artistic works
6    Nicknames and false titles
7    Nonstandard usage

Of these, three are rather open-ended and are probably the categories that give writers the license to scatter quotation marks willy-nilly: irony, signaling unusual usage, and the last category, nonstandard usage, which covers a multitude of sins. Usually falling into the category of “Irony” or “Signaling unusual usage” is what many people call scare quotes. Wikipedia also has a lengthy article on scare quotes, which includes this interesting observation:

[M]aterial in scare quotes may represent the writer’s concise (but possibly misleading) paraphrasing, characterization, or intentional misrepresentation of statements, concepts, or terms used by a third party. This may be an expression of sarcasm or incredulity, or it may also represent a rhetorical attempt to frame a discussion in the writer’s desired (non-standard) terms (e.g. a circumlocution, an apophasis, or an innuendo).

The math implicit in this passage would be hard to express precisely, but the suggestion is that quotation marks may introduce a semantic shift in the word or words they ensconce in any of a dozen directions. For this reason, it’s possible that you should indeed be very afraid when you encounter scare quotes. How can you be certain what they might mean? How could any dictionary supply the precise meaning for any of these deviations from normality, when the intended meaning resides in the head of the quote-splattering writer? Finally, and apropos of the digital age, how could a computer processing text make any sort of reliable guess about the meaning of quotation marks when there are so many possibilities? Natural language processing systems (which involve computers parsing large volumes of text for the purposes of summarization, question answering, data mining, and the like) have no reliable facility for dealing with what quotation marks mean, aside from setting off actual quotations and enclosing titles.

The liberal use of quotation marks often signals a kind of intimacy between writer and reader: writers assume that their readers will know what shift in meaning is intended. This model was more applicable in an age when a private reading audience was to some degree under the control of the writer (in a letter, for example), and when writing that reached larger audiences typically benefited from professional editing. These controls do not apply today, however, when anyone can write anything that may come to the attention of everyone, online. And so quotation marks march on, scraping out a trail of uncertainty in their wake.

Does this point to an eventual backlash against nonstandard uses of quotation marks? There’s no sign of that happening yet. Until it does, writers will continue to use them as a sort of lazy man’s tool, leaving it to the reader to determine what the marks signify. Writers may wish, however, to spare a thought for the next computer that reads their text, and ponder what it will make of these dubious semantic red flags.

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Orin Hargraves


  • Another common use of quote marks is that slightly annoying thing people (including me) do called air quotes; that is, making a gesture with their index and middle fingers of both hands curled to indicate that what they are saying is “not to be taken seriously” (see what I did there?)

  • Yeah, I’m no fan of air quotes either, because their intent is often to ridicule. And while we’re on things that annoy, there’s Quote Unquote itself — when a speaker prefaces something with these two words, leaving it to the listener to decide where the closing quote actually goes (and also leaving it to the listener to decipher why quotation marks are necessary!).

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