Usage of Quotation Marks

Okay, I admit it gets to me more than it should, but abuse of quotation marks really gets my goat. (It does not get my "goat".)

Many people use quotation marks to convey emphasis. But quoting and emphasizing are two different beasts; consider instead italic, bold, or underlining as time-honored ways to emphasize words. If you don't have those fonts, then *stars* work well. (Some people use all-caps, though to me that reads as shouting.)

So what do quotation marks mean? A bunch of related things, all related to quoting: that is, to the idea that you can't replace the quoted word with a synonym, without destroying the meaning. Compare:

The Quotation-Mark Litmus Test: Replace the word in question with a synonym; if this doesn't change the gist of the sentence, then quotes are inappropriate.

How does this relate to quoting somebody else? With quotation marks, you are insisting that you're repeating somebody's exact words. Without quotation marks, you are only paraphrasing them.

Note that this means that company mottos/logos/trademarks/jingles therefore do deserve quoting: Changing "All the news fit to print" to "Every daily event worth writing about", strips away the name-recognition familiarity which the company has established. Consider replacing some occurrences of "Where's the beef?" with "What's the cow-meat's location?" -- the latter could only be a parody of the former ad, even though the meaning is the same. So the quoting in those commercial cases is necessary to say "hey, our motto is the exact phrase -- we don't have legal claim to similar phrases."

(This is all complicated by the fact that presumably meaning of those specific words is also part of the message/ad; it makes use of the fact that as humans, we'll still convert quoted text to meaning, even while recognizing the phrase's quoted status.)

Another way of looking at what quoting means: Suppress a word's meaning (semantics), and pay attention to the word itself (syntax -- it's spelling, whatever).

Aside, for those who have programmed in Scheme: This is exactly what quote means in Scheme, as well. Compare pi with 'pi. Usually you automatically translate from the placeholder pi to the value it represents. The quoted form 'pi means, "whoah, don't do that translation -- this is a symbol with no other meaning". Note that you could replace the expression pi with a synonomous expression -- e.g. (+ 1 2.1415926536) -- without changing the original expression's meaning. Not so with the quoted version.

In my own writing, I use the same trick with quotation marks as I do with commas, parentheses, the use of "etc.", etc.: When scanning what I've written, I briefly consider what would be different if I took that feature out; often that makes me realize it was a superfluous use.

Some improper uses

Other, allowable, uses

", when prepended to an unquoted copy of itself, becomes grammatical." -- Douglas Hofstadter