Quotation Marks Have Specific Uses; Emphasis Isn’t One—Nor Is Avoiding the Right Words
- On May 6, 2015
I’m continually bemused by how frequently writers mistakenly put quote marks around words and phrases—and inadvertently amused by the effect of the incorrectly quoted matter.
Here are the five cases in which it’s correct to use quotation marks. The last two seem to spark the most misuse, as you’ll see from the examples I’ve gathered just sitting at my desk.
- When you’re quoting someone
- When you’re naming the titles of TV and radio programs, book chapters, poems, short stories, songs, and headlines of newspaper and magazine articles
- When you’re referring to a word as a word, unless you’re using italics instead
- I do both in these weekly bulletins. For example, “Bryan Garner had this to say about incentivize and the equally dreadful incent” could also have been written, “Bryan Garner had this to say about ‘incentivize’ and the equally dreadful ‘incent.’”
- When you mean so-called-but-not-really or when you want to show skepticism or sarcasm
- Uncle Oscar’s regular Friday-night “volunteer work” turned out to be a poker game. (I took that example from the excellent grammar and usage book Woe Is I.)
- A few years ago, I was working with an executive who kept negatively chiding me, and many of the “underlings.” And, that is the way this senior executive viewed the staff at the company—as underlings. (Even though the boss actually did consider his staff underlings, the author of this LinkedIn post, “Quit Before a Boss Sucks the Life Out of You,” wanted to convey sarcasm.)
In everyday business communication, we’re usually not conveying skepticism or sarcasm, so be careful.
- When you’re creating a new word for something—and then only on the word’s first appearance. When you do this, be sure the new word is readily understandable in its context. Otherwise you need to say what it means.
- The other day I got an email from some smart women at a big investment bank inviting me to a breakfast to learn how deal with my “money blockers.” The term caught my attention, but nowhere in the invitation copy (and there was a lot of it) was it clear what a “money blocker” is, so I don’t know if I have one.
- A well-known public relations firm says it customizes its content creation services based on need, level of “content maturity” and budget. Is this a diplomatic way to say the firm charges its clients based on how much work their content needs?
- In shopping with us, you’ve “voted with your fork” for natural, sustainable, and pure foods. “Voted with your fork” is a made-up term, so the company was right to put it in quotes.
- Europe is leading the pack in the global “dash from cash” and Why the “mobile wallet wars” will never have a clear winner are both correctly rendered—“dash from cash” and “mobile wallet wars” are made-up terms.
- A colleague advised a client to build a constituency from among “internal” and “external” audiences. I suspect she thought the quote marks would add emphasis, but quote marks don’t do that. Instead she ran the risk of diminishing her recommendation (see No. 4).
- Another colleague wrote a client saying she would send a “to date” estimate on the hours her team spent developing material for a project. By putting to date in quotes, she was suggesting the estimate might not be accurate. I would have written, We’ll send you an estimate based on the hours we have spent to date developing this material.
My final example is what I call “cop-out quote use”—the quote marks that get you out of finding the right way to express what you really mean. “Wow,” as in the “wow factor,” falls squarely in this category.
- We’ve been doing a lot lately for our customers, but we are particularly excited about our most recent initiative that will bring a “wow” experience right into their living rooms. (One can only imagine.)
I recently read an account of an 82-year-old widower and a 77-year-old widow who fell in love and got married. They had known each other socially and discovered their romantic feelings over a long lunch date, after which the man said, “I left that lunch with my jaw hanging open saying, ‘Wow.’”
That is the case for “wow.”