On the rampant misuse of quotation marks

On a walk through Salthill yesterday I saw this eye-catching window display:

Stan Carey - Volvo Ocean Race 2009

It’s a charming notice, but its peculiar use of punctuation is what particularly interests me, because I can’t recall ever seeing quotation marks used quite like that before.

Quotation marks have been proliferating indiscriminately in English, like transposons in our DNA. They are greatly misunderstood even compared to other punctuation marks. Public signs and notices boast especially egregious and incongruous examples, as evidenced by a Flickr pool, a blog, and an old website.

Scouring the Flickr pool (for research and fun – they’re easily blended), I noticed a few general patterns and types of errant usage. My apologies in advance for the runaway link-fest, but once I began browsing these galleries it became difficult to stop, and I wanted to convey the extent of the phenomenon and to present some of my favourites.

Food features frequently. What might someone expect when ordering “homemade” stew, “vegetable” cream cheese, or prawns with “cocktail sauce”? Would you be tempted by “real” cream cheese, “fresh” mozzarella pizza, or “delicious” Belgian waffles? How about “wheat” pita pockets or a “Tuna” deluxe sandwich? Me neither.

Quotation marks are often erroneously used for emphasis. The frequency of this solecism in public notices and signs is most impressive. Here are a few non-food-related examples; for the sake of my readers’ eyes I have removed excessive capitalization:

“Absolutely” no loitering
“Please” don’t leave items on sidewalk
“Paper” items only
Help wanted “female” cashier
Think “you” know travel!
“Clients” entrance “only”
“Do not eat”
So call me “really” call me

Sometimes, as you’ll notice, this inadvertent emphasis lends the message an irony as delicious as it is unintended:

Please try our “new” salad menu
It’s actually “good” for your hair and scalp
Come party with “pretty ladies”
Buy one candy apple get one “free”
Complete this “confidential” survey
Employee must “wash hands”
Brand names for “less”
We are here to “repair” your phone
The name you can “trust”

While these are amusing, they are also perfectly understandable. The culprits did not know how to stress part of the message and thought they could do so with quotation marks. But sometimes the marks are more mysterious:

See you “tomorrow”
Open your heart to “Jesus”
Beware of “dog”
From “Greece”
“Logs”, “eggs”
“Sexy” artificial trees
Do not block “exit”
We are not “responsible”
Please take a basket for your “shopping”
“Pillow” sale (This one reminds me of a scene in Planes, Trains & Automobiles.)

Dodgy quotation marks make some messages downright sinister:

Please enjoy our “Safe” and “Comfortable” flight
“Massage” by Salvador
Beware of “stray” golf balls
Comfort them with “Care”
Let’s make “a deal”

Earlier I said that quotation marks were proliferating indiscriminately. I meant it. Here are the concluding exhibits:

“Now open” “Sundays”
“We” ‘accept’ “food” stamp’s!
No ‘trespassing’. ‘Do not’ put signs on this pole…
‘New’ Chinese restaurant ‘staff’ ‘required’
“Sex crimes” “Teens” “No drugs”…
“Run & play”…

My post on how to use quotation marks correctly is here.

28 Responses to On the rampant misuse of quotation marks

  1. Claudia says:

    Thank you. Truly needed the two posts. I think those details make it difficult to reach writing perfection in a foreign language. It comes naturally in our own because of the reading we have done from an early age, specially in children’s books. Some of your links are quite humourous. Why are “official” teachers so boring? I couldn’t stand the “special classes” I had to take for failing miserably to understand “Hamlet” at first reading. I’m not sure if those quotations marks were needed. Please let me know.

  2. PK says:

    Haha. Beware of “dog”… If a 1970s stand-up comic were to have said that, it would be intended as code for “wife” or “mother-in-law”…

    What a great post, Stan. It’s brightened up my morning. I think the “09” was probably meant as ’09, but the quotation marks add a delicious air of doubt to proceedings. Can we be sure it’s 2009? I’m not convinced.

  3. Stan says:

    Claudia: I’m glad the posts helped. What you say is true up to a point, but perfection is impossible to attain even in one’s native language, except perhaps by a few great writers. Uncertainty and misuse are rife, not least in everyday notes and signs.

    When it comes to quotation marks, I tend to think that the fewer there are, the better – though of course there is considerable leeway to accommodate different styles and preferences. While none of the marks you used were wrong, I wouldn’t say they were necessary either. By convention the titles of Shakespeare’s plays are usually italicized instead of being enclosed in quotation marks; the same is true of books of the Bible.

    PK: Glad to have spread some cheer! No doubt ’09 is what was intended, and the ubiquity of that form makes what was chosen all the more mystifying.

    Your theory about the “dog” code casts new light on this sign, though the maleness of its subject has been made explicit. Father-in-law, perhaps?

  4. Lucy says:

    I LOVE misused quotation marks. We “need” more of them.

  5. Stan says:

    “Yes” we “do”.

  6. Lucy says:


    Of course, in this context, all that we are imparting is just another layer of irony. Yeah, ‘cos that’s exactly what the world “needs” right now. More “irony”.

    Hurrah! (phew)

  7. Stan says:

    You’re right, dammit. And I’ve been waiting years for irony to return to its pre-ironic status, à la Baldrick.

  8. Lucy says:

    That was pleasant.

  9. Sean Jeating says:

    This did ‘really” ! cause the corners of my mouth to start some expeditions to the ear-lobes, and not only ’cause it’s the ’31st” of May!

  10. Lucy says:

    I think he liked it, Stan.

  11. Stan says:

    Sean: Charmingly put, and I’m delighted to hear about the expedition! (I’m also sorry I neglected to reply before now.)

  12. Sean Jeating says:

    Ha, Stan – you make me blushing. Oh dear, all the ‘sorrys’ I have to say once I start trying to catch up with replying to all comments.
    Ah, be it: The night of Bloom’s Day seems ideal to relieve my conscience.

  13. Paul Duane says:

    Yes, “sexy” artificial trees is somehow more puzzling than “sexy artificial trees”, all right.

  14. Stan says:

    Paul: Yes. The unadorned phrase sexy artificial trees would be strange enough (possible explanation: marketing + too much caffeine + sexual frustration), but putting “sexy” in quotation marks makes it even stranger. Maybe the sign maker knew it was an odd adjective, and wanted to assure his readers that he knew this. I am metagrobolized.

  15. Sean Jeating says:

    Ha ha … mystified by the last word I looked it up and … am not longer metagrobolized.

  16. Stan says:

    Sean: Another hurrah! I discovered metagrobolize very recently and cannot understand why such a marvellous word fell into disuse. At this rate we will return it to common international usage, though it is sure to cause much metagrobolization along the way.

  17. Sean Jeating says:

    allow me to join you in this noble quest.

  18. Claudia says:

    Thanks, Stan. I can’t wait to use it on one of the American blogs I visit the next time it puts WTF. “What do you mean?” I will say innocently, “Your abreviations always metagrobolize me.”

  19. Claudia says:

    I wonder if the American blog will tell me about the missing “b” !!!!!!!! You should, Stan. You’re my favourite teacher.:)

    My French language betrays me at every progressive step I make in English!

  20. Stan says:

    Sean: You are most welcome on this noble and highly non-dangerous quest. I’m happy to see that metagrobolize is also on Wordnik.

    Claudia: I was going to tell you! I hadn’t decided whether to point it out here or by email, and I didn’t know whether you would prefer if I edited it discreetly. It reminds me that after I began learning French in school I ended up spelling apartment with two ps for a while.

    May you all enjoy metagrobolizing people for as long as the word remains rare.

  21. Claudia says:

    Please, you may correct my comments, right here, on the spot. As loudly as you can. This way, I’ll learn and might remember. You may also edit the commas, as James Joyce did during the seven years he spent revising “Finnegans Wake.” Every piece of writing is important. Every dot on the i has its value.

    I’ll always be grateful for your attention.
    Merci mon ami.

  22. Stan says:

    Claudia: Je t’en prie! Thank you for the clarification. I will alert you to mistakes I see, or changes I apply or advise. À l’exception d’abreviations, il n’y en a aucun ci-dessus.

  23. It is mind-boggling how these mistakes can occur with such regularity. Didn’t English teachers in elementary school, junior high and high school go over the use of quotation marks and other punctuation marks until we were bored to tears and well beyond? Didn’t a majority of people attend enough of these classes to get a fairly good grasp on it? I don’t get it.

  24. Stan says:

    Daniel: Many people who learned how to use quotation marks probably retained that information for a while – be it five minutes or five years – only to lose it again through disuse. Many people read very little and write even less, except perhaps short notes and signs.

    Moreover, erroneous forms seem contagious: their prevalence is likely to affect those who are uncertain, thereby spreading the confusion. People unaccustomed to manipulating text forget or remain ignorant of how to emphasise a particular part, until they remember some text with “emphasising” quotation marks, and assume this to be acceptable.

  25. […] 6. is “metagrobolized” a real word? [Yes.] […]

  26. thnidu says:

    Coming here via a linkchain from Tuesday’s post Inheriting grandparents’ names, I was immediately reminded of a verse in “Editors’ Waltz”:

    The signs in the market are rather a mess,
    Selling APPLE’S and PEAR’S with apostrophe-S.
    And saying their flounder is quote, “FRESH”, unquote
    Suggests it’s just two or three weeks off the boat.

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