Punctuation Errors: Quotation Marks for Emphasis

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Last month, Daniel covered some of the basic rules for using quotation marks. I’d like to point out one of the most common misuses of this piece of punctuation: the quotation mark for emphasis.

As Daniel’s post pointed out, quotation marks can be used to express irony, as in the sentence:

Uncle Joe was really “sad” about it.

The use of the quotation marks indicate that Uncle Joe was not, in fact, sad at all. The quotation marks are a signal to the reader about the true meaning of the sentence.

When the quotation marks are misused, however, they can obscure your meaning. I saw a flyer on a college campus that read:

“You’re invited”
Resume workshop
“All” majors

The person who made the flyer apparently wanted to emphasize “you’re invited,” “all,” and “free,” but the misplaced quotation marks just make it seem as though the writer is being sarcastic.

Be sure to write what you mean. If you want to emphasize specific words or phrases, you should use boldface type or italics. Give the quotation marks a break!

For some humorous examples of quotation mark abuse, visit The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.

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11 thoughts on “Punctuation Errors: Quotation Marks for Emphasis”

  1. And then a good rule of thumb: use boldface for sans-serif fonts (e.g. Arial), and italics for serif fonts (e.g. Times New Roman).

  2. Why do some refer to quotes used to denote irony as “scare quotes”?

    Also, is there a name for the gesture where you wiggle two fingers of each hand to symbolise this kind of quoting?

  3. Denis-I’m not sure about the “scare quotes” thing. I’ve always referred to the finger-gesture thing as “air quotes,” but I’m not sure if that’s a technical term. šŸ˜‰

  4. I can’t stand when buzzwords or colloquialisms are in quotes.

    Strunk & White has great advice on that matter: “To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better.ā€Ā

  5. How does one handle this in a medium that doesn’t allow for text formatting? I usually use either forward slashes (IE: Wow, that was /really/ stupid!) or else asterisks (IE: Boy, aren’t *you* clever?).

  6. What I want to know is how this error started. Why do so many people make this mistake? I know that there are other punctuation marks that are ambiguous, like the apostrophe, but quotation marks are pretty straightforward. They’re for quoting.

  7. I think I finally worked out how this usage happened. People writing in school are trained to add quotations from source material to essays and papers, to give strength and emphasis to their text. This technique is also common in historical writing, where only the important parts of a document are quoted, alongside with the rest of the text, in a way that reads naturally, so things like: ‘Winston Churchill was “unapologetic and unforgiving” [1] when confronted’ are common. My theory is that unsophisticated writers then conflate the idea of emphasis with the idea of quotation marks, and use them to emphasise “any” text, not just quotations.

  8. In technology, quotes are used to signify the exact code or exact words to type in or locate. Iā€™m sure this leads to additional confusion in this area. Thank you.

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