The “Appropriate” Use of Quotation Marks

Image courtesy of Flickr user waving at you via CC license Attribution-Sharealike 2.0

Image courtesy of Flickr user waving at you via CC license Attribution-Sharealike 2.0

Quotation marks serve an important function in language, but they are often employed in inappropriate ways, lending an unintentional air of sarcasm to one’s writing.

For example, you might notice a trend in the following sentences:

“Free” lunch available in the cafeteria.
We use only the “freshest” ingredients.
Visit our beautiful “historic downtown.”

How are the quotations marks functioning in the phrases above? To answer this question, let’s take a look at the appropriate uses for quotation marks and then return to these examples.

The quotation mark’s main job is to set off text that was either said or stated elsewhere and is repeated in a document, letter, etc. You  see direct quotations of interviews and dialogue hundreds of times a day, especially in newspapers and books (“The budget will be balanced this year!” said the town manager at last night’s council meeting.)

This is all pretty straightforward. The misunderstandings come in when people attempt to use quotation marks to add emphasis to a word or phrase.

In general, emphasis should be indicated not with quotation marks but with italics to set off the word or phrase (you may want to reference your style guide to double check. Here at The Ochsner Journalwe follow the American Medical Association Manual of Style, which prefers italics to indicate emphasis).

A word or phrase offset in quotation marks, however, indicates not emphasis but irony. The quotes used in this situation are called scare quotes and they often suggest an attitude of derision or skepticism on the part of the author.

Here are some examples of scare quotes used appropriately:

The “improvements” to the building left a huge debt for the project manager.
It has been said that shoes and latrines are the best “medicine” for ancylostomiasis (hookworm disease).

AMA Manual of Style, 10th ed.

In the first example, the scare quotes indicate that the author believes the building was not, in fact, changed for the better. In the second example, the scare quotes indicate that the author acknowledges shoes and latrines are not traditionally considered medicine.

Now back to those original examples. You may have laughed when you saw them or even winced. Here’s why:

“Free” lunch available in the cafeteria.

Scare quotes make it sound like the lunch will cost you.

We use only the “freshest” ingredients.

Instead of emphasizing that the meal is high quality, scare quotes make the reader doubt how fresh the ingredients really are.

Visit our beautiful “historic downtown.”

Scare quotes make the reader wonder if the downtown area was built in 1990.

To avoid snide remarks from skeptical readers, use italics for emphasis in your writing. Save the quotation marks for when you want to offset a word or phrase you intend ironically.

Check back later this month for information on how to punctuate quotations!

Further Reading:
OWL Quotation Marks
OWL Adding Emphasis
The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks
AMA Online, Quotation Rules


2 thoughts on “The “Appropriate” Use of Quotation Marks

  1. I see inappropriate use of quotations all the time on company trucks… a cab company that boast “Two-way Radio” (is this really a benefit anyway?) and a contractor serving the area with “since 1953” in quotes. They really intend to emphasize these things.

    • Agreed, Matt! Most people really have a good intention of highlighting some special service or feature but those quotation marks make their boasts look questionable. Keep fighting the good fight for “appropriate” quotation marks.

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