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Unnecessary Quotation Marks: My “Favorite” Punctuation

When my siblings and I were small, my mother generally avoided bringing toy guns into the house. One day, however, she bought some light-up ray guns because they were exceptionally cool and on sale. I didn't play space aliens with them, though, or imagine any violent scenarios. Instead, I used them as pretend library barcode readers.

I have always liked books, and I fantasized about becoming a writer from a young age.I have always liked books, and I fantasized about becoming a writer from a young age. Then, the Christmas before I began the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, I received a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I didn't realize at the time what an important book it would be to me, but Lynn Truss's work is an inspiration for any budding grammar humor writer (yes, we do exist). It's about language and punctuation, but it's accessible and fun, even for those who don't spend their time day-dreaming about serial commas. And it's hilarious. For anyone who hasn't read the book, the titular anecdote is about a panda display at a zoo that claims the panda "eats, shoots and leaves" unintentionally turning two nouns — shoots, leaves — into verbs in a list with "eats." Now imagine an entire book filled with grammatical slapstick like this along with crisp, funny commentary!

I later discovered the writing and podcasting of Mignon "Grammar Girl" Fogarty, whose work has also helped catapult grammar into the pop cultural consciousness, and who possesses a similarly witty style. What I especially like about Grammar Girl is that for her, understanding grammatical rules and style choices is about writing clearly — the most important thing you can do as a writer is to make sure your audience understands what you are saying. Like Grammar Girl, I'm not after correctness for its own sake; I care about correct usage because it helps others understand what I've written. I've learned from Lynn Truss and Mignon Fogarty that it's possible to make a point about grammar and punctuation and have fun, too. I'll admit that in my blog I only really make one point — don't use unnecessary quotation marks! — and then I just keep having fun. Still, theirs is an attitude I try to emulate.

Of course, I also enjoy intentionally misinterpreting punctuation mistakes, which is why I still love curating the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks after five years. The concept of the blog is relatively simple: each post features a found image of unnecessary quotation marks in their natural habitat, and a snarky interpretation supplied by me. Readers, fans, and random internet people send me the images, and oftentimes their awesome interpretations, as well. This works out for me because, in my opinion, the quotation mark is the most fun of all punctuation. A well-placed semicolon can be quite satisfying, and nothing says exciting like an exclamation point, obviously. But quotation marks are great because they can completely transform a sentence.

Having spent hours of my life cataloging these phenomena, I have a theory about why people use unnecessary quotation marks.Having spent hours of my life cataloging these phenomena, I have a theory about why people use unnecessary quotation marks. Here's a scenario: Someone is putting the finishing touches on some informational, potentially useful sign and then, all of a sudden, he thinks, "this sign could use a bit more" and just throws some punctuation on there. As my readers know, these sorts of quotation marks often obscure the intended meaning of the sentences they inhabit more than they illuminate. Now, in many of the signs posted on my blog, the purpose of the quotation mark is clear, albeit incorrect. However, quotation marks often have dual meanings, so it's easy to misinterpret them. And intentionally misunderstanding something is funny. I mean, that's pretty much the basic premise of the whole farce genre, right?

Perhaps the most common example of unnecessary quotation marks occurs when the user is trying to do something that is better done by other methods, like underlining, italics, or capital letters. These ambitious quotation marks may be looking for a new place to shine, but they don't always succeed. For example, take this recent post from my blog:

This is "not" an entrance, please use "front" door

In this example, the sign-maker wanted to emphasize the words "not" and "front," arguably the key words of the message. However, using quotation marks for this task draws these important words into question. "Why is this person being sarcastic about the front door?" you might ask. Or, more likely, I might ask.

Here's another example, found on a sign beneath some soda bottles in a grocery store:

We also have it "cold"

Here, the underscore is already doing the work of emphasis, but the quotation marks wanted to come along for the ride. Suddenly the temperature of these drinks could be anywhere from freezing to scalding.

In examples like these, it's easy to forgive the punctuator. Maybe the writer forgot that other (better) methods exist for indicating emphasis. In my experience, however, not every unnecessary quotation mark comes from such a simple mistake. For instance, sometimes nearly every word in a sentence is surrounded by its own quotation marks. Take this recent post:

"No" "Flyers" or "Junk" "Mail" for Apt. "4"

I can only assume that these quotation marks indicate that this entire statement is a secret spy code and has nothing to do with mail at all.

I like to believe that in addition to poking fun, my blog promotes clear writing. I think the lesson of unnecessary quotation marks applies to a lot of things about writing: stop adding things you don't need. This is certainly a lesson I've learned, as I must now take special care to use this particular punctuation mark sparingly in my own writing. In fact, I'd say that is the number one side effect of becoming a quotation mark quasi-celebrity: I have to be very careful that all of my usages are necessary. (Semicolons, though are not a problem; I can use semicolons with abandon.)

For example, soon after my blog started rising in popularity, I published an article in a small, specialized magazine. Upon publication I discovered, to my horror, that the editor had added reasonable — but not necessary — quotation marks to my article. The editor was simply setting apart certain terms that I meant to use unironically but with a bit of distance. With any other author, this would have been perfectly fine. But, you see, I'm a special case now. Quotation marks only when the situation demands them! (Or, you know, when I'm trying to be "funny.") I probably overreacted, though, as I've never heard anything from anybody about the punctuation in that article.

I'll tell you what I do hear a lot: ambiguous compliments. I never know how to take it when people tell me my blog is "hilarious" or "genius." They might be making a joke as a kind of homage; they might be insulting me. Perhaps the best response, either way, is a simple "thanks" (always with the quotation marks, of course).

Through the process of starting and building this blog and writing this book, I have frequently corresponded with people who are respectful, helpful, enthusiastic, and often hilarious. For every possibly insincere compliment, I encounter many more of these folks. When I was emailing for permission to include images in the new book, people responded quickly and generously at unheard-of rates. This is maybe the best part about being a punctuation humorist in the age of the internet: It's easy to get more people involved so we can have fun with this stuff together.

÷ ÷ ÷

Bethany Keeley is a graduate student, blogger, and writer who lives in Athens, Georgia. She is also the founder and author of the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

Books mentioned in this post

Bethany Keeley is the author of The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks

15 Responses to "Unnecessary Quotation Marks: My “Favorite” Punctuation"

    manwith7talents August 4th, 2010 at 10:34 am

    I "love" your blog. It's one of my "favorite" sites on the "internet".

    Chance August 5th, 2010 at 10:40 am

    What is sad is that I read this and keep hoping to find an "it's" where "its" should be used. So far no luck.

    A. Nuran August 6th, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I am about to suffer a biblical fit of grammar-curmudgeonly rage.

    dwrites August 6th, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Big theory. Really, people who make these errors are simply not as obsessed with such matters as you and I are. Sometimes they can't be. They're plainly looking for emphasis and don't know how to do it properly. Sorry; this is flat and ordinary to me. I also used to make a habit of poking fun at the "outrageous" errors of others. Then I started working around people who have other fish to fry, mainly, bringing home the bacon from the factory and keeping food on the table. Oh we are so superior. Except I don't know about you, but I tried non-creative work once and lasted about a week. Nothing here is especially hilarious. We see these signs all over the place now. I am too old to let myself be troubled by them; I have real-life concerns that take up the energy once reserved for being high and mighty.

    KJ August 6th, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    The incorrect use of quotation marks strikes me as very similar to the incorrect use of the word "literally" (hope I'm using quotes correctly here).

    They both seem to be used as a way to emphasize something rather than as a way to refer to alternate understandings of a word or phrase.

    Liz in Seattle August 6th, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Yesterday, I saw a sign in front of an apartment complex...2-Bedroom Apartment, "Spacious" :-)

    Cohen August 6th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    It's "Lynne," BTW.

    GrammarUSage August 6th, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    dwrites: congratulations. Your transformation from elitist snob to self-righteous spokesperson for the masses is now complete.

    GrammarUSage August 6th, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Congratulations, dwrites! You've gone from haughty elitist to self-righteous spokesperson for the masses!

    GordonEditorial August 7th, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Tough crowd, Bethany. That aside, thank you for an amusing and readable post. What sparked me to pile on was your comment about semicolons and a memory from my time at the Henry W. Grady School there in Athens. One apocryphal story I recall from the J-school had to do with the reporter who insisted on using semicolons. He used them correctly, but his editor objected to the semicolon on general principle. The reporter insisted on putting them in; the editor insisted on taking them out. I think the parable was about the superiority of the editor's opinion, because it ended with the editor bringing a rasp into the office and filing the semicolon off of the reporter's typewriter. (Wow, that is an old story.) Anyway, we all have our foibles. One of mine has to do with the current insistence of broadcast commentators to say "that begs the question" when they mean "that raises the question." Go figure.

    Mark August 7th, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    Your blog performs a much needed public service and gives me hope for humanity. I appreciate the fact that your main point is the need to communicate effectively. Punctuation and grammar should help the writer to achieve this aim; not get in the way, as "unnecessary" quotation marks and other misuses of punctuation often do (eats, shoot, leaves)

    Nancy August 9th, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    You had me at, "Instead, I used them as pretend library barcode readers." Those quotation marks were ok, right?

    Nan August 12th, 2010 at 7:44 am

    The cover of your book makes me laugh every time I look at it.
    so now I want to read the book. I do not think you are being "self-righteous"!

    Al August 12th, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I'm puzzled when speakers use their index and middle fingers to make air quotes.
    Shouldn't one wiggle suffice? Almost always, the speaker makes two wiggles.
    When I witness a speaker using two hands, two fingers, and two wiggles, I want to scream,
    ""Enough already!""

    monkeywomantoo August 12th, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    two wiggles; one to indicate "quote", another to indicate "unquote".
    still annoying though.

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