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Quotes make me shudder

The practice of using punctuation to indicate verbatim speech seems to have had its origins in the diple, a caret-like ancient Greek marking used to call attention to part of a text. By the late 15th century, the diple had been replaced by a pair of inverted commas placed in the left margins to indicate quotations, and by end of the 18th century the inverted commas were being used to open and close quoted material.

Single and double quotes battled it out for a time, with double quotes emerging as the norm by the 19th century for quoted speech and single quotes for reported speech within a quote. Quote marks were also used for the titles of articles and other short works.

By the 20th century, editorial conventions for quoting were stable and quotation marks had been extended to new uses, such as signaling technical terms, identifying cited words, and to mean “so-called” (this last, a favorite of Henry James).

It’s easy to imagine how such new uses emerged. Quotes for technical terms signal to the reader that the author is introducing a concept unfamiliar to the reader. The quotes say, “I am calling something this.” The writer usually omits the quotes after the first mention (where, hopefully, the term is defined, even if just by context).

Quotes for technical terms are one form of noting unfamiliar usage. Another is citing a word as a word—the philosopher’s use-mention distinction, as in “Amy” has three letters. The function is citation, so quotes are again a natural convention. This use of quotes seems to have originated, or at least been popularized by W. V. O. Quine’s 1940 book Mathematical Logic (insofar as a book on mathematical logic can popularize anything). The practice of using quote marks around unfamiliar terms or word used as words has been somewhat supplanted by italicization, in part because software has democratized font choice.

Scare quotes are used when writers wish to distance themselves from the words they use. They are the written equivalent of the gestural air quotes. Such quotes are a typographical shudder or sneer, and shudder quotes and sneer quotes are alternate terms for them, and more descriptive as well. When used to introduce a term that a writer would normally avoid, the quotes can be a type of shudder: The “gig” economy has arrived in full-force. Or at least that’s what people call it.

When used to introduce a characterization a writer disagrees with, the quotes sneer: Management hired several “consultants” to develop the new business plan. Several so-called consultants. Sometimes the difference is tough to discern, as when someone writes: My child was “held back” in school. Is that a shudder or a sneer? And when someone writes The plan to “deconstruct” the curriculum met with resistance, is that a technical term or a sneer? Without intonation to help, scare-quoted words can be frustratingly vague.

Even more frustrating are quotes are used for emphasis. We find this in folk signage such as

“Fresh” seafood

Please keep all “valuables” with you.

Use “caution” on stairs.

“Gluten free” section

Such unnecessary quotes—there are blogs dedicated to them–are widely derided, and rightly so. How might the use have arisen? Not from irony or sneering. It is conceivable that quotes used for emphasis are an extension of the use of quotes for technical terms. People might have understood quotes around technical terms as meaning that all important words should be in quotes. But there are other possible sources for this practice as well.

Advertising may shed light on the rise of such unnecessary quotation marks in two ways. Some businesses have used quotation marks around descriptive words to distinguish them for trademark and branding purposes. A writer for the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange points out that the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company advertised and branded its bathroom fixtures as “The American Standard” and the Chelsea Milling Company produces “Jiffy” muffin mixes. Perhaps quotes as trade decoration were transferred to quotes as emphasis.

A librarian writing for Otherstream Media has also suggested unnecessary quotation marks seem particularly prevalent in classic Yellow Pages advertising, where ad templates provided to businesses by telephone books used quotes around phrases like “Where to Find Them” and “Where to Call.” Yellow Page style may have legitimized and extended quotes as a stylistic option in other advertising.

That last instance of the word legitimized should probably have quotes around it. Shudder.

Featured image: “Shuddered” by Jim Lukach. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. carol walshe

    The use of unnecessary quotes are a symptom of a growing lack of confidence in using language. Quotes are now used in an almost apologetic sense as if regretting the use of a less frequently used word. They ask the reader to slow down and recall the meaning of the word. They can serve a similar function as the use of the word “like” in the spoken language of many current English speakers, as in “I was like, surprised to see he was like, there.” Both quotes and the use of “like”, or the longer form, “you know”, are an acknowledgement that fluency has become uncommon and is considered unfashionable, possibly even elitist. A quick listen to the speech of ordinary people recorded in past decades is enough to demonstrate the decreased comfort people have using language..

  2. Joella Werlin

    TO: Edwin Battistella
    You’ve called attention to a very confusing situation, with added frustration that the British have yet another style for verbatim quotations. What is to stop you, or some designated body, from coming up with new practices and/or symbols now? For example, wouldn’t it be possible to use marks around direct quotations, since those are are on every keyboard? That would “free up” (!) ” ” marks for other uses. Oops, those aren’t “curly quotes,” but this autotext only offers one style. Please help!

  3. Paul H

    “Such quotes are a typographical shudder or sneer…” I don’t agree that so-called scare quotes necessarily express a shudder or a sneer. I occasionally use quotation marks around a term that is used by some people, but which I wouldn’t use myself. But by this usage, I don’t intend to express contempt, horror, or fear of the quoted term. I simply mean “this is what some people call it, but I don’t use this term or don’t agree with this term myself” — no more than that.

  4. Paul H

    “’Fresh’ seafood” is pretty funny. It looks like the writer of the sign meant to say, “So-Called ‘Fresh’ Seafood.” Maybe the seafood is fresh, or maybe it isn’t. We’re just saying that someone has referred to it as fresh. :-)

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