Are you “using” quotation marks correctly?

quotation-marks-beware-dog-bigger

In the world of punctuation, quotation marks are often misunderstood. They are misused and abused in everything from signs, placards, and product packaging to our Firm’s brochures, newsletters and client alerts.

In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to mocking incorrect usage of quotation marks, such as this one that features pictures of grammatical errors guaranteed to make you smile.

To find out whether your writing could end up on one of these websites, take this quick test. For each question, choose the sentence with correct punctuation.

  1. a) Based in emerging markets, our lawyers do not “parachute in” when issues arise.
    b) Based in emerging markets, our lawyers do not parachute in when issues arise.
  1. a) Investors consider Eastern Europe a hot market for buyouts.
    b) Investors consider Eastern Europe a “hot” market for buyouts.
  1. a) There are ways to compensate sales professionals without crossing the line.
    b) There are ways to compensate sales professionals without “crossing the line.”
  1. a) Karen decided she wasn’t a “good fit” for the organization.
    b) Karen decided she wasn’t a good fit for the organization.
  1. a) George thinks the rule should be “tweaked’ to reflect the new law.
    b) George thinks the rule should be tweaked to reflect the new law.

The answers: B, A, A, B, B. In short, none of these sentences need quotation marks.  Here’s why.

A common mistake that even the most educated people make is thinking that because a word or phrase is an expression or figure of speech, they need to use quotation marks. Phrases like “parachute in,” “crossing the line,” and “good fit” are figures of speech that we use all the time. So are “hot market” and “tweaked.” Readers are familiar with these phrases, so there’s no need to call them out with quotation marks.

Otherwise, we would end up with sentences like this: Professionals who want to “climb the ladder” of success and “make their mark” in their industry need to “hit their targets” and maintain their momentum on the “learning curve” so they don’t “run out of steam.”

Ugh.

I don’t like unnecessary quotation marks because I find them distracting, like clutter in an otherwise tidy room. But they are also grammatically incorrect.

“The primary purpose of punctuation is to convey and clarify meaning,” my friend Erin, a high school English teacher, explains. “People use figurative language all the time and readers understand it as such. Poets don’t put their metaphors in quotation marks, and you don’t need to either.”

In fact, putting quotation marks around common phrases can confuse your readers because one of the correct uses of quotation marks is to signify that you are being ironic or sarcastic, like this:

He took me to his “cabin” in the woods. [The cabin is really a mansion.]

The “experts” told me to take this route. [You do not really think they are experts or you question their judgment as experts.]

In these cases, quotation marks are used as a wink to your readers to let them know you are joking or using a double meaning, just like comedians do when they use air quotes. If you put quotation marks around something, your readers are going to start looking for double meaning, even if you didn’t intend one.

That’s why using quotation marks for figures of speech such as “crossing the line,” and “good fit” could miscue your reader by making them wonder, Wait, what does she really mean by “good fit”?

Another common mistake is using quotation marks for emphasis, like in the picture above. There is no more reason that “dog” should go in quotation marks than there is to write that I really “should” go on a diet. Instead use all caps, bold, italics, underlining or an exclamation point for emphasis, depending on what you’re writing and the style guide you follow.

For example, BEWARE OF DOG! works well for a sign in your front yard. When emailing a friend about your weight problem, use italics:  I really should go on a diet.

Aside from irony, quotation marks are used for four other reasons:

  1. When you’re quoting someone.

“What’s for dinner?” John asked.

  1. When you’re referring to a word as a word.

       Many people don’t like the word “moist.”

  1. When you’re coining a new word or phrase, but only on first use.

During the workshop, students complete “selfwork” assignments designed to make them reflect on their academic goals.

  1. For the titles of magazine or newspaper articles, poems, short stories, songs and individual episodes of TV shows.

One of the best articles I’ve ever read is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Other than these reasons, you don’t need quotation marks. Grammar rules are like traffic rules. If we don’t follow them, we risk sending the wrong signal and distracting readers from our message. And who the heck “wants” that?

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