This story first appeared on PR Daily in April 2011.
Do you find yourself using air quotes? Be honest. How about in your writing? Are your sentences peppered with single or double quotation marks? Are you sure you’re using them correctly?
Quotation mark abuse is so rampant, it begat a website, The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, documenting their often confusing, but always funny, misuses.
For instance, a sign introducing Franco’s “Special” Fried Chicken was showcased on the site. The blog humorously noted that the quotation marks suggest it’s either not chicken or else coated in marijuana.
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Blog author Bethany Keeley told me that academics most often abuse the quotation mark. She greatly underestimates corporate writing. Whether it’s an article in a corporate publication or CEO’s letter, quotation marks are sometimes misunderstood and often overused.
Here’s how you can curb the misuse.
Quotation marks denote direct speech or an excerpt from someone’s prose, but it wasn’t always this way.
During the Renaissance, English writers used italics instead of quotation marks. Between the Renaissance and 18th century, authors subjectively wrapped pithy remarks in quotation marks. Writers finally adopted quotation marks to denote direct speech in the early 18th century.
Since then, the quotation mark has taken on more responsibilities. For instance, unfamiliar terms need quotation marks when they’re introduced, but do not use quotation marks as a substitute for strong, succinct explanation. That’s how jargon starts.
Nicknames need quotation marks when a person is introduced with his or her full name. For instance, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff was Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Forget quotation marks when the person prefers the nickname, for example, it’s Bill Clinton, not William “Bill” Clinton. Same with athletes: Yogi Berra is OK, no quotation marks.
Depending on your stylebook, titles need either quotation marks or italics. PR Daily italicizes publications, both online and in print, and wraps books, movies, TV episodes, plays, and short stories in quotation marks.
Choose whichever you prefer, just be consistent.
Don’t abandon humor with quotation marks
Writers also wrap jokes and ironic comments in quotation marks, a practice supported by the Associated Press.
Be careful, advised Keeley, whose The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. “In some cases [quotation marks] show it wasn’t a good joke to begin with,” she remarked while conceding that sometimes ironic statements need them.
In general, lay off the quotation marks when writing your own irony or humor. Quotation marks distance the writer from their words. Don’t abandon your humor—stand by it.
Better to be a brave yet failed humorist than a safe and boring coward; if you’re not careful, the next thing you know you’re air quoting your jokes.
Keeley said of air quotes, “In most cases it means you’re not so good with the inflection”—or humor.
Less is more
Resist the urge to use quotation marks for any reason besides the ones listed, or you’ll wind up referring to a former employee’s “retirement” years. This misuse appeared in a corporate article and made me question my understanding of retirement.
Or perhaps you’ll write an otherwise strong human interest story about an accident victim, who needed help with “everything” (the author’s quotation marks, not mine). There are a lot of things in everything …
Less is more, said Keeley. “My advice to people in terms of punctuation and diction is to think, ‘Do I actually need this, or am I throwing more things on the page?’”
If one judges by CEO letters, it would seem that particular practical thought doesn’t occur to some executives. For instance, there’s the airport chief with a penchant for enclosing the words belief and strategic plan with quotation marks.
My favorite is a consulting firm’s CEO who insists disabled employees are more loyal and less likely to “jump ship.” Again, his quotation marks, not mine.
Employees understand the meaning of “jump ship” and they won’t mistake the term for its actual meaning—unless this firm’s headquarters is at sea. Then there might be a problem.
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|The delicate details about the quotation mark
Don’t forget the more delicate details of the quotation marks, namely single versus double marks, punctuation and titles.
Best advice: Be consistent.
If you’re quoting someone quoting someone else—got that?—then alternate single and double quotation marks.
For instance: “I overheard Jim say, ‘My favorite Oscar Wilde remark is “a poet can survive everything but a misprint”—or something like that.’ I agree with Jim.”
As for punctuation, mind your location—United States or Great Britain—because that dictates usage. In Great Britain, every punctuation mark falls outside the quotation mark, unless it’s part of the quote. Americans have two exceptions to that rule; periods and commas always stay inside the marks. Here are couple examples:
England: Excuse the dangling preposition, but I love the phrase “to be or not to be”.
America: Excuse the dangling preposition, but I love the phrase “to be or not to be.”
Again, if that period was part of the quote it would fall inside the quotation marks in both nations. Also, unless a question mark, exclamation point, colon, semicolon or dash are part of the quote, they always fall outside the quotation marks in both countries.
If you’re quoting someone and it runs into a second paragraph, then leave the final sentence open—no quotation marks—but begin the next paragraph with quotation marks. Take a look at “Heart of Darkness”; author Joseph Conrad does this throughout the book.
And by the way, unless your name is Cormac McCarthy, you should be using quotation marks to denote speech—got it?