A specter is haunting English – the specter of abused quotation marks. We notice this more and more in our reading and editing in the Lounge: the unthinking or misguided use of quotation marks where they are not required or serve no clear purpose seems to have become epidemic, perhaps nowhere more so than in the recently well-publicized open letter that the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers posted on the team's website, in which he responded to star player Lebron James' move to another team.
The letter contains numerous words adventitiously bracketed with quotation marks, of which a sample can be seen in this paragraph, in which the author, Dan Gilbert, talks about the manner in which James made his choice known:
This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his "decision" unlike anything ever "witnessed" in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.
It is charitable, and probably accurate to suspect that Mr. Gilbert's letter did not benefit from the attention of a copy editor before being published to the world. What would a copy editor have done?
Sorting out quotation marks is not a straightforward job in English; they wear many hats. The Wikipedia article on quotation marks (which makes several references to the Chicago Manual of Style and other respected style guides) organizes quotation marks under these heads:
1.1 Quotations and speech
1.3 Signaling unusual usage
1.4 Use–mention distinction
1.5 Titles of artistic works
1.6 Nicknames and false titles
1.7 Emphasis (incorrect usage)
Many off-label uses of quotation marks, especially those falling under heads 1.2 and 1.3 above, are branded scare quotes. Wikipedia also has a lengthy article on scare quotes, which includes this interesting observation:
Material in scare quotes may represent the writer's concise (but possibly misleading) paraphrasing, characterization, or intentional misrepresentation of statements, concepts, or terms used by a third party. This may be an expression of sarcasm or incredulity, or it may also represent a rhetorical attempt to frame a discussion in the writer's desired (non-standard) terms (e.g. a circumlocution, an apophasis, or an innuendo).
The math is tricky, but the suggestion is that scare quotes – or perhaps, any quotes not clearly used to identify others' speech or writing – may introduce a semantic shift in any of a dozen directions. These are semantic shifts that no dictionary can be prepared to supply the meaning for, since the intended meaning resides in the head of the quote-splattering writer. To what extent are writers aware of which direction a given reader will take? It seems to be an act of great faith on the part of the writer to slap quotation marks around a word or phrase and assume that the ghost meaning thereby intended will be accurately telegraphed to the reader. Are readers' reactions so predictable? Is the writer so convinced of a shared mentality with her audience that by merely placing squiggles around words she saves herself the time and effort of explaining what she means in greater detail?
The letter quoted above showcases what we take to be an unedited and unfortunate use of ill-considered quotation marks, but their use in professionally edited text is also common, as we can see in the following examples.
(1) Earlier this year we read an article in the New Yorker that profiled John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market. [For international readers, Whole Foods is the largest US chain of supermarkets catering to consumers of organic, healthy, locally-produced, environmentally-friendly (the list could probably go on) foods.] There is a tension throughout the article about whether Whole Foods is just another giant corporation operating in the usual vein of consumer capitalism and thus contributing its small part to global catastrophe, or a genuine revolutionary whose existence will bring about more enlightened food distribution practices and thus help to save the planet. In a discussion of this point, the author observes:
Of course, Whole Foods has always held itself up as a paragon of virtue. It is an article of faith that it is, as Mackey often says, a mission-based business. It has seven "core values," which are, broadly speaking, commitments to the fulfillment and equitable treatment of all "stakeholders"—customers, employees, investors, and suppliers—as well as to the health of the populace, of the food system, and of the earth.
What sort of quotes are these, around core values and stakeholders? Both terms are well-established weapons in the arsenal of corporate-speak and they occur predictably in annual reports and other information for public consumption that corporations produce. So is the writer actually quoting such a publication from Whole Foods? Or perhaps making the point, by the use of the marks, that Whole Foods really is a giant corporation, and their use of these terms proves it? The reader may ponder.
(2) A recent New York Times Op-Ed piece was written by a laid-off professor, who laments the loss of her tenure-track job at a small university. She claims that the university (and here I am quoting directly) "closed after years of financial risk-taking and mismanagement":
Unable to pay a debt that hovered around $30 million, the fragile institution began courting Laureate Education, which runs for-profit universities abroad and online, hoping for a "partnership" (i.e., bailout). For a while, it seemed that this might work, though we'd lose things like tenure and sabbaticals, receiving instead an undefined form of "merit pay" and the chance to teach at Laureate's campuses worldwide.
Her first quotation is straightforward: the University calls it partnership but she calls it bailout. With "merit pay," on the other hand, she offers no gloss and also points out that the university has not defined it. So are we to understand that it carries a standard meaning (thus not requiring definition)? Or are the quotation marks meant to signal one or more of the dozen possible semantic shifts that this sort of unspecified use implies?
(3) A recent and somewhat rambling Guardian opinion piece on the evil influence of celebrity culture and big salaries for bankers and footballers meanders eventually towards this summary observation:
A political debate cast between madcap deficit cutters and those labour leadership candidates who want to rediscover the virtues of a backward-looking "socialism" opens up none of these issues. We badly need better.
How is this socialism different from the one defined in a dictionary? Are we to understand that Labour leaders actually use the term "socialism," or does the writer simply wish to impute the worst abuses of socialism to them?
In all these examples we perceive an attempted collusion on the part of the writers with their readers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and doesn't, in itself, constitute abuse: all the examples we have chosen put forth a point of view, and it is surely a main function of this type of writing for writers to win readers over to that view, or at least to engage in mutually enjoyable stroking, or outrage, or indignation, with readers who already share the point of view. But we wonder if everyone might be better served if quotation marks were not freighted with so much work, and if writers, before using them, might reflect more carefully on what they are achieving, or avoiding, by bracketing language in squiggles.