What we call “quotations”
August 6, 2009
Any time I think of air quotations, I think of my high school driver’s ed. teacher. Not only did Mr. Hillman use the air quotes in just about every sentence, he often gave us the double (or triple) whammy of the air quotes with the phrase “What we call…” or “What I like to call…”
What made this especially funny was that Mr. Hillman would do this when mentioning just about any person, place or thing. I have a very vivid memory of him saying,
“Next week we’ll do a little of what we call ‘driving.’”
Why did he do this? Who knows? Maybe because we call it “driving” but someone in the next town over might call it “toodling down the street”?
I’m guessing that excessive quoting was like Mr. Hillman’s equivalent of the words “um” or “uh” because I didn’t hear much of those. In a single class period, though, I counted him saying “what I call” or some variation of it at least 20 times. Granted, I flunked driver’s ed that year, so maybe I should have been paying attention to something else. But that’s not the matter at hand, is it now?
What we call “the matter at hand”
Having edited many a poster, brochure, business letter and press release, I have seen quotation marks used in more ways than I care to count. Most people are right in using them to cite the words another person has said or written. For example:
Tyler said, “I’m excited to play with Fruition String Band on Friday.”
(Note that the phrase in quotation marks is introduced by a comma and that its period, or any punctuation mark, goes inside the quote.)
“I’m excited to play with the band on Friday,” Tyler said.
(Here the quote ends with a comma to introduce the speaker.)
I’ll take a shot in the dark here, but I think that because some formats recommend using italics for titles of creative works as well as for emphasized words, and because some formats recommend putting titles in quotation marks, many people think it’s appropriate to put quotation marks around emphasized words or around the name of any person, place or thing. But this is not correct, and doing it can give your written message less credibility.
(By the way, I admit to misuse of single quotation marks and italics on this blog. But I am working to clean that up because I realize it’s distracting.)
A few guidelines
To simplify, here are some general rules for everyday writing in American English (not including specialty formats such as academic, journalistic, etc.):
- Quotation marks + names of creative works = Correct
- Quotation marks + reference to another person’s words = Correct
- Quotation marks + a word or phrase that is slang or unfamiliar to your audience = Correct
- Quotation marks + regular verb or noun = Incorrect
- Quotation marks + names of people, places or events = Incorrect
- Quotation marks + emphasizing a commonly used word = Incorrect
I don’t claim that this is a complete list, but I hope these guidelines are helpful for general writing.
Especially with the advent of interactive web technologies that don’t have handy buttons for making text bold, italicized, etc., it can seem like putting quotations around a word is the only way to emphasize it without the rudeness that comes with writing in all capital letters. But even online, inappropriate quotations can still be, well, inappropriate.
My favorite (informal) alternative to this is to surround a word with asterisks. For example:
Seeing people use air quotes *always* makes me laugh.
Either that or learn the HTML code needed to format your text. But if you don’t have the time or inclination to do that, I recommend the asterisks. They’re pretty, aren’t they?
The Internet also presents us with the problem of not having the option to italicize titles of movies, music albums, books, etc. In this case, my feeling is that is best to set the title off with quotation marks.
The use of quotation marks inevitably opens up the can of worms including italics, underlining, single quotation marks, capitalization, bold text and more. It wouldn’t be fun for anyone to cover it all in one post, but I will revisit those topics in time. Until then, Cliff’s Notes has a wonderfully clear and concise tutorial on uses of quotation marks that you can read here.
When in doubt, throw it out
Despite all the italicized and bolded words you may have seen on my blog, I do think that it’s often best to be sparing with your text formatting. If you want to emphasize a word or an idea, italics can help (quotations will not!). But the strength of your message should provide its own emphasis.
Just like I’ve said about cliches and adverbs, if you’re relying heavily on quotation marks, italics and the like to emphasize parts of your message, take a minute to look carefully at the words you’re choosing. When it comes to written communication, carefully chosen words are what do the job best.