Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A "Rant" on Quotation Marks

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Is this snarky or just an inappropriate use of quotation marks?
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I am not entire sure when it happened.

I think it began about eight years ago.  That is when I started noticing creeping quotations marks in a variety of writing.  I define creeping quotation marks as those "marks" used for emphasis when little or no emphasis is needed. 

I have never been a fan of the use of quotation marks for emphasis.  I usually find them snarky in writing and I get oddly irritated when I run across them.  Read these two sentences to see what I mean.

Bill had a party on Saturday.

Sam had a "party" on Saturday.

Clearly, Sam's party was not very much fun. 

If you intend to sound snarky in your writing, punctuate away.  There is nothing wrong with sounding like a teenager if you want to write like one.

But most people prefer clear, formal writing with a mature tone.  If you want to sound like an adult, why not say:

Sam had a boring party on Saturday.  You didn't miss anything.

These sentences are clear and precise. 

If creeping quotation marks were mainly found in informal writing, I would not have an issue with them.  But, lately I have seen quotation marks seep their way into academic writing and student assignments.  Think of these two sentences:

Washington County is developing "environmental policy" initiaves.

Jefferson County is developing environmental policy initiatives.

Which of these sentences is clearer?  To me, I fully understand what Jefferson County is doing in the second sentence.  They are working on environmental policy initiatives.  It is clear as a bell.  But, as a reader, one starts to question the intent of Washington County's initiatives in the first sentence.  Does the writer intend to call the initiatives into question?  Are they not environmental policy initiatives?  Are they development initiatives disguised as environmental initiatives?  In other words, the emphasis leads to a lack of clarity and intent by the author.  It causes the reader to ponder the writer's meaning.

Let us explore another common use.  Some people use quotation marks to indicate an out of date expression or a term that is misused commonly by the public.  One example I ran into recently is a sentence similar to this:

In 1492 Columbus "discovered" America. 

There are two problems with the use of quotations in this sentence.  First, we all recognize that Columbus was not the first person in North America and the use of the quotations to indicate that you know better is a bit out of date.  It reads like the worst of 80's postmodernism and seems snarky and haughty.  Second, the sentence is imprecise.  The way that Columbus is discussed in the modern era is within the context of European contact.  Thus, a more accurate sentence is:

I wonder what is implied by the word dog?
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In 1492 Columbus was the first known European to come into contact with indigenous North Americans.

To me, the first sentence seems lazy and full of implied meaning that is inappropriate in formal writing.  The second sentence is clear and detailed.

Another use of quotation marks I don't like is when they are used to offset a particular term or phrase that the writer thinks needs more definition, emphasis, or clarity.  Here are two examples:

Diamonds are found in "kimberlite" rocks.

In the United States, "The Endangered Species Act" was signed into law by President Nixon in 1973.

To me, the use of the quotations in the first sentence reads like a 7th grade textbook.  Kimberlite is a perfectly normal word and it doesn't need any particular notation.  Likewise, The Endangered Species Act is a well-known law and does not require any emphasis.  The use of quotation marks in both of these sentences is redundant and inappropriate.  Why set a word or phrase aside when educated people know, or should know, the meaning.

I am a fast writer and I make lots of mistakes.  I am sure my readers could point to some stinkers on this blog.  So please indulge my thoughts about "writing" so that my readers could have some idea of my "feelings" about the use of quotation marks in "formal" writing.



Unknown said...

I too have been guilty of over using quotation marks particularly on social networking sites where I miss the expressiveness of HTML tags for bolding, italics, etc. As a Perl programmer I tend to retain the special meaning that the use of single and double quotes have in defining variables too, but that is not snarky.

Ages ago you got this expressiveness into manually typed research papers by using double strikes. Sorry to hear that inappropriate quoting is spilling over into academic writing.

Jason Polk said...

I "love" this "Bob"! (and how do you feel about my punctuation outside the quotations?).

Bob Brinkmann said...

Thanks Kathy and Jason for your "comments" on this post. I found them "interesting."

It's funny, after I wrote this post, I realized that my paper at the Mets conference used "Green" in quotations in the title. I am such a hypocrite!

But it was a fun post to write.