Please, Don't 'Quote' Me

The Widespread Abuse of Quotation Marks

air quotes
Ron Burgundy (played by Will Ferrell) using air quotes in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. (Apatow Productions, 2013)

A dip into the "Quotation Mark" Abuse Pool at Flickr suggests that the spread of inappropriate quotation marks has reached "epidemic proportions." There, among the hundreds of bizarre quotables contributed by visitors, you'll find these odd gems:

  • Employee must "wash hands"
  • Staff Wanted—Please "Ask"
  • We are here to "repair" your phones
  • "Quality" Nuts & Fruits
  • "Restrooms" for customer use only
  • Please do not "husk" the corn
  • "Hot" pork "sandwiches"
  • Day old "bread" 99¢
  • "Flashers" must be on (a street sign)
  • "Cars Parked" at Owner's Risk
  • Service with a "smile"

How many of these quotation marks are actually needed? The answer, of course, is none. Or as some folks might insist on writing it, "none."

The guidelines for using quotation marks are really pretty simple, if not always entirely logical. True, if you're heading for Britain, you should be prepared to check your quotes (or rather inverted commas) at customs: the Brits favor single quotation marks over double, and they generally prefer to park commas outside rather than inside the closing mark.

But the issue isn't punctuation and multiculturalism. (In fact, several of the examples at the Flickr site are in German.) Rather, it's the proliferation of quotation marks in some of the most unexpected places.

Consider, for instance, this sign found taped above an office water fountain: "This is 'NOT' a garbage disposal!"

Misquoting for emphasis is a common form of abuse. Here, apparently, full caps and an exclamation point weren't forceful enough to discourage co-workers from dumping coffee grinds into the water cooler. We're guessing that the quotes around "NOT" marked an effort to turn a shout into a scream.

More peculiar are the quotation marks in this automated e-mail reply from a comparison-shopping site: "Just responding to let you know that a 'human' reads each and every comment to BizRate.com!"

We're left to wonder if a quoted "human" is any more or less human than an unquoted one. This usage calls to mind a rather creepy sign found on a supermarket service counter: "If you need help finding something, one of our 'friendly' associates will be happy to help you."

Profound suspicions are raised by such wayward quotations. Like this skeptical sign at the mall: "Have your picture taken with 'Santa.'"

But of all the forms of quotation mark abuse, surely the worst is the sarcastic or downright derisive quote. The leering or homophobic quotes around "the close friend" of a well-known actor; the sneering quotes around "liberal" or "highly educated"; the snotty quotes around just about any cliché--quotes that say, in effect, "I'm way too smart to be using clichés--and way too lazy to say anything original."

Now please don't "quote me" on this, but you could help stamp out "quote abuse" in "our fair land": stick to our trusty guidelines for using quotation marks.