A Quiz About Quotation Marks

By Mark Nichol

Use of quotation marks for dialogue is fairly straightforward; several posts on this website that deal with the topic can by found by searching for “quotation marks.” This quiz deals with other uses of these emphasis markers.

Read the following sample sentences, determine the problem with the use of quotation marks, and devise a solution. (Note that I use single quotation marks rather than double quotation marks because of my custom of framing the entire sample sentence in a pair of the latter.) Then, take a look at my revisions and explanations at the bottom of the page and see how they compare with your changes:

1. “The IQ evaluation provides a ‘snapshot’ of a child’s cognitive skills at a particular point in time.”

2. “Perry is connecting with a growing number of Republicans because of his uncompromising rhetoric and his back-slapping, guy-who-married ‘the first girl I dated’ persona.”

3. “Consider the glass ‘half full and not half empty.’”

4. “The old fixer-upper looks like it was designed by “The Amityville Horror” house architect.” (This example is from a newspaper; many such publications use quotation marks, rather than italics, to denote titles of films, books, and other self-contained compositions.)

5. “They reviewed cross-border reproductive care, or “medical tourism,” as an increasing phenomenon in respect to egg donation.”

6. “Our waterworks have reached the classic ‘run to failure’ moment.”

7. “He used scientific reasoning to show that singing and dancing could cure melancholy by stirring up the ‘secretions’ in the human ‘machine.’”

Answers and Explanations

1. The informal usage of a word need not be excused with what are sometimes called apologetic quotation marks (what I refer to frequently in these posts by a more common label: scare quotes): “The IQ evaluation provides a snapshot of a child’s cognitive skills at a particular point in time.”

2. This sentence attempts to allude to erstwhile presidential candidate Rick Perry’s pride that he married the first girl he dated, but the writer, after a promising start in which they began stringing the relevant words together in an extended hyphenated phrasal adjective, fumbles by attempting to employ a direct quote. The best solution would be to abandon the attempt at direct quotation and fold a paraphrase into the adjective string: “Perry is connecting with a growing number of Republicans because of his uncompromising rhetoric and his back-slapping, guy-who-married-the-first-girl-he-dated persona.”

3. This reference to the idiomatic metaphors for optimism and pessimism implies that there is an idiom consisting of the phrase “half full and not half empty.” However, only the distinct antonyms “half full” and “half empty” are valid, and there is no reason to enclose them in quotes (also, a comma seems more effective than the conjunction and): “Consider the glass half full, not half empty.”

4. Here, the writer is attempting to employ the first word of the movie title as a direct article for the framing sentence, but it cannot serve double duty. In this case, it is acceptable to transfer the to duty with the sentence and leave the title temporarily bereft of the direct article that begins it (“The old fixer-upper looks like it was designed by the ‘Amityville Horror’ house architect”). However, the sentence would read more smoothly if it were relaxed, including the insertion of a couple of additional direct articles and the retention of the full movie title: “The old fixer-upper looks like it was designed by the architect who designed the house in ‘The Amityville Horror.’”

5. This sentence is doubly irritating. As in the first example above, the scare quotes are extraneous. In addition, it seems illogical to me to introduce the gloss (brief definition) of the phrase “medical tourism” before it; why, then, bother introducing the idiom at all? Use a term-then-gloss structure: “They reviewed medical tourism, or cross-border reproductive care, as an increasing phenomenon in respect to egg donation.” (A compromise is to explicitly identify the idiom as such following the literal description for the topic in question: “They reviewed cross-border reproductive care, known popularly as medical tourism, as an increasing phenomenon in respect to egg donation.”)

6. The phrase “run to failure” may be a partial quotation from someone, but unless it is a clever coinage heretofore unfamiliar to readers (and even then, use the explanatory solution in the fifth example, above), the phrase should simply be strung together as a phrasal adjective: “Our waterworks have reached the classic run-to-failure moment.”

7. Trick question — in the original context, as least, it’s clear that “secretions” is a direct quote. Sometimes, it’s best to indicate that an unusual word was actually written or spoken by the source, and sometimes, scare quotes are helpful (as in the case of those framing machine, which may well have also been a direct quote). In this case, I’d leave the sentence as is.

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1 Response to “A Quiz About Quotation Marks”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Blast, the dreaded quotations. Great article, though I have to admit I had an eyebrow raise and giggle at #4. This is why I never could write an article for someone else when I was younger and had the drive. Oh well, found my calling now. Thanks for sharing this!

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