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Saturday, August 14th, 2010
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The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks

by Bethany Keeley

Punctuation Gone "Wild"

A review by Megan Zabel

You've seen them on billboards, church marquees, and bathroom stalls: a pair of renegade quotation marks that ultimately results in an unfortunate, unintentional innuendo. You might think that a book comprised solely of photos of publicly displayed punctuation gaffes, accompanied by witty commentary, might get old after awhile. Well, you would be wrong.

The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, based on the popular blog created by Bethany Keeley, features reader-contributed photos of these superfluous punctuation faux pas. The book's organized into categories like "At Work," "Social Graces," and "In the Bathroom," and Keeley provides funny commentary without being overly snarky. Even though the book repeats a different shade of the same joke over and over, the variations manage to seem wholly original when applied to different contexts. What self-respecting consumer of words could help from giggling after seeing a billboard that reads:

"Jesus" is Coming

Or, what about a customer feedback box from a national restaurant chain (I'm looking at you, Taco Bell) with a sign proclaiming:

"We Care." Please Let Us Know How You Feel

English is complex -- so what's the big deal if these avant-garde painters of language take the laws of grammar into their own hands and use the world's billboards, Post-it Notes, and sandwich boards as their canvases?

This is the big deal: Rules are rules, folks. Just like stop signs, speed limits, and laws that prohibit you from marrying your cousins, the regulations placed on the use of punctuation were created to benefit society as a whole. They exist so you don't unwittingly make fun of your own products, accidentally give the impression you're not being honest, or unintentionally dispute the existence of "the Lord." (See what I did there?)

Some might argue that only privileged people with soft hands have the time or energy to poke fun at the misuse of punctuation. Perhaps these bold folks going hog-wild with the quotation marks simply have more pressing things to worry about. Maybe so. They're trying to get people to buy their "soup," attend their "church," or simply just "flush" the toilet. They want emphasis and don't care how they go about achieving it.

Sorry, you syntax rebels, I'm taking the hardliner approach. We've got punctuation for a reason, and it's to fine-tune the sentiment behind our communication. Anyone with the wherewithal to own a business, buy billboard space, or design a product label should know better. Or use a proofreader. Google it. Something! If you break the rules, prepare to pay the price. (Which is being publicly shamed in this book.)

With that said, Keeley is fairly gentle. She focuses more energy poking fun at the absurdity of the unintended implications and less calling out the language skills of the perpetrators. Read it and chuckle with a good conscience, and think: Oh, that zany language of ours. Always up to "something."

Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures at www.marthazinger.com.

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