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. 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. 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.