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
1.2 Irony
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.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 2nd 2010, 4:34 AM
Comment by: Odile B. (DPO, AE)
My favorite "mis-quotes" are on a road sign just outside the Parris Island USMC base in SC:

25 MPH
25 MPH

I don't agree with your criticism of "merit pay." The quotes mean that the term is the one used by the university, but since levels of merit and ensuing pay have not been defined, as they would be in standard merit pay schemes, the university is free to give no merit pay at all: smoke and mirrors, in other words. So what the university calls "merit pay" is not the standard meaning.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 5:07 AM
Comment by: Joseph B. (Drury New Zealand)
Hmmm, it would have been useful to give a little lesson on the correct usage in the article. That is what I was waiting for, but it never happened.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 5:54 AM
Comment by: Robert B. (Norwich United Kingdom)
Several instances of lack of "copy-editing" in this article too!
Monday August 2nd 2010, 6:11 AM
Comment by: David G. (Kassel Germany)
That should be "the arsenal of corporate speak".

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Monday August 2nd 2010, 6:43 AM
Comment by: Frank O.
Orin, this is a great topic. But, like Anonymous 5:07 AM, I'm wondering: What's your point of view? Can you post a follow-up that discusses what you think the correct uses of quotation marks are?

Is the use of quotation marks to indicate irony or unusual usage OK? Can they be used for emphasis when italics aren't an option? Are scare quotes acceptable?

Dan Gilbert's letter was a bumbling mess. But his use of the word decision could be considered ironic, because of the name of the over-hyped ESPN show--"The Decision"--and the fact that Dan and many others believe that LeBron had reached a conclusion about where to play long before the evening of his "interview." (Intentional, even if incorrect, use of quotes.)

Please consider posting a follow-up. This is a great topic.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 6:50 AM
Comment by: John S.
The misuse of quotation marks has been around for a long time; at least as long as I have been reading. I was looking for Orin to tell us how to deal with the problem, but I was left without a clear solution. The bottom line is that when you see quotations misused, such as in the "merit-pay" example, the writer is just raging away and has not thought out what it is they want to say, or what they want the reader to believe they said, but did not because they were lazy, cowardly, misinformed, or deliberately misleading.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 7:48 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
"Pedantic Ponderings of Puritanical Proportions"
Monday August 2nd 2010, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Robert B and David G: We depend on the kindness of strangers for pointing out errors we have missed, especially when the corrections are offered in a loving way.

Anon, Frank O, John S: I appreciate being looked to as one who might provide "a little lesson," guidance or "a clear solution" -- but that hat doesn't fit me very well. Perhaps another estimable VT writer will rise to the occasion, although I'm not sure that "a clear solution" is a frequent outcome of writing dilemmas. I do think there is a place for the various unofficial uses of quotation marks. The general point I have tried to make (mainly, in the last paragraph) is that writers often don't give adequate consideration to the effects of using quotations marks, or to the various ways that their readers might interpret them -- especially readers who are not already sympathetic to the writer's POV. I think writers who are preaching to anyone but the choir would do better to just say what they mean in words, unless they are in fact comfortable with communicating all of the various meanings that their quotation marks might suggest.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 9:03 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
What Frank O. said. And I'd also like to defend the quotation marks around "witnessed" as a similar put down of the hype surrounding the so-called "decision" show. The writer implies that "witnessed" is a pompous word that he would not ordinarily use and is a word consistent with the "narcissistic, self-promotional" quality of the subject of his criticism. I would think "merit pay" carries a similar message, questioning the "who" and "how" (ooo, just used "scare quotes")of what exactly defines "merit" for the new management of the college. The message (if I am reading it right) might have been clearer and stronger if the writer had placed "merit" alone in quotation marks. Like allusions, the use of quotation marks for irony, unusual usage, or emphasis depends upon a shared literary or cultural context. Much of what we write and read these days feels much like conversation at a family get-together. Even if we didn't "witness" Lebron James's "decision" (I didn't) most of us are in-the-know and enjoy the ironic implications of Gilbert's language, just as we'd get it if he referred to the whole exercise as "sound and fury" or "tempest in a teapot." (By the way, as a user of MLA style who has lived through its changes, throughout this post I've been trying to avoid quotation marks at the end of a sentence so I don't have to put a period or comma inside! Both ways now look strange to me. But that's a matter for another day.)
Monday August 2nd 2010, 9:13 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
Orin and I were writing comments at the same time. After rereading his final paragraph, I do agree with his point. If a piece of writing is for an immediate audience (preaching to the choir) the quotation marks work, but even then readers can't be sure we've caught the implications. And the more precise thinking required to do with words what we are attempting with "squiggles" (Orin's very good word that he now owns for this conversation) may help writers clarify their meaning for themselves as well as for their readers. Thanks for an interesting article.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 9:51 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I'm not a basketball fan, and I laughed at the whole LeBron James thing, but I did understand Gilbert's use of quotes as I believe they were intended: expressing derisiveness at the original use of the quoted words by someone with whom the author did not agree. It falls under category 1.2 of Orin's list if such an admittedly crude device qualifies as irony. (I wanted to put "irony" in quotes there... but thought the better of it. Here, it's category 1.4, use-mention distinction!)

I think the problem is that many writers assume that everyone is "the choir." (And you're right Joyce, it looks funny either way.) They assume too quickly that readers will share their point of view and that their non-standard use of quotes will be understood in the proper context. This tendency might be traced back to the egocentric culture that is growing out of the blogosphere and the 24-hour news cycle: These days, everyone has a platform, and everyone assumes that everyone else is paying attention. Sorry, not the case!
Monday August 2nd 2010, 10:07 AM
Comment by: George K. (Parma, OH)
Being a Cleveland-area native, I can add that Gilbert was essentially quoting the banner that hung on one of our downtown buildings. It said, "We are all witnesses" with a huge shot of Lebron behind the words. Of course, in the days after the "decision," that banner was removed. The irony of what we were all witnessing is another issue. I think the quotation marks were doing double duty--and then some: quotation, irony, unusual usage, and even emphasis. I'm including a link to a news article about the banner.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Frank R. (Tyngsborough United States Minor Outlying Islands)
I was amused to find that you used the word, adventitiously, in your article. I thought, hmmmm, what does that mean. So I typed it into The Visual Thesaurus and guess what? It is NOT IN THERE!
Just thought I'd point that out! It is not the first time I have found the VT a bit light on content. Is there an effort ongoing to flesh it out more?
Monday August 2nd 2010, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Frank R. (Tyngsborough United States Minor Outlying Islands)
OOPs! Forget that last comment. I just learned about dictionary filtering.
Thanks for the article. It got me to explore VT a bit more. It turns out that adventitiously IS in there! Turning off filtering is something I should have done a long time ago.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 11:06 AM
Comment by: E N.
There is a wonderful blog about this very subject: http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/

I used to live in an apartment complex that had a sign about mumbered parking spots, and had odd quotation marks all over it. And then, of course, there are the people who use them in place of the internet usage of asterisks, as a way to emphasize something.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 11:08 AM
Comment by: E N.
Aw, shoot! I just realized I wrote "mumbered". I meant "numbered". I think those quotation marks are appropriate.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 11:17 AM
Comment by: marji K.
Three thoughts. Writing emails has forced me to use quotation 'squiggles' when I would prefer to use italics (or even boldface type) for emphasis, titles, etc., but don't have the option. So I do find myself getting lax in general. Also, why not suggest that writing speak clearly? For instance, the former professor could explain what was unclear about the 'merit pay' proposal. Making assumptions is generally a recipe for misunderstanding. Finally, as you can see twice above, the short cut of the single quote mark, as opposed to double 'squiggles' is also a modern perversion of the email culture.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Tamirra S. (Beverly Hills, CA)
I had the misfortune of working for Whole Foods a couple of years ago when I was an income-supplementing freelancer. In trade for our souls, employees were hammered with WFM thinkspeak. "Stakeholders" was, and probably still is, an attempt at making employees feel as though we were more than underpaid cogs and that, without our tireless dedication, Whole Foods would surely go under. The seven "core values" were so important, it would be grammatically correct to capitalize the first letters of each word. Just as in Communist countries, every wall had a poster that featured these Core Values. They related not to king and country but as to how to treat fellow employees, our jobs, our store and, most important, our "guests." Note the quotation marks.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Janet D.
This article was much more interesting after I'd read all the comments! THANKS everybody.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 12:48 PM
Comment by: dr phillip D. (kansas city, MO)
to Frank R:

Not so fast! Adventitious beams large in the VT. What's so bad about making it an adverb by adding -ly?
Very American

in friendship,

Monday August 2nd 2010, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Ann W. (Irvine, CA)
I love this thread and believe it to be worthwhile. However, quoting Wikipedia doesn't strike me as utilizing an authoritative or identifiable source.
Monday August 2nd 2010, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Joe Heinowski (Milwaukee, WI)
The postmodern era opened the barn door to questioning the roots of everything. Steve Martin then took the whole notion to a new level with "air quotes". Well, Mr. Gilbert's needs to get a copy of your column, "For the Times they are a-changin'". Thanks for the insightful thought. Keep it real!
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 6:26 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Ann W: Perhaps I should have made clear in the column why I used Wikipedia. Because it is crowd-sourced, rather than written by “an authoritative or identifiable source,” I think it accurately reflects how quotation marks are used – as opposed to how they should be used – and it is how they are used that chiefly interests me. I also particularly liked the rambling paragraph from the Wikipedia Scare Quotes article, no doubt crowd-written and edited, which sums up the confused state of scare quotes far more eloquently than an authoritatively written and edited paragraph would have done.
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 7:27 AM
Comment by: Robert P. (Melbourne Australia)
Why are they called "Scare" quotes?? Are they scary?? Do people feel threatened when they read words bracketed with quotation marks??
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 12:18 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Since, as Orin says, readers may take different directions in giving meaning to these kinds of quotes, then I suppose no example could be given that some reader would not be ready to defend. As a reader, I have often been left pondering what was really meant by using them. In my role as writer/editor for my company, I often know the message that the text is intended to convey, so I re-write and eliminate those kinds of quotes. If I don't know, I go back to the SME in question and find out.

This is an interesting thread. We are watching the language change, sometimes before our eyes, but I have to agree that more thoughtful writing in some of these cases would make for easier reading.
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 2:54 PM
Comment by: Andrew K.
Nice thread. I was just discussing this very issue yesterday. Re: emphasis when italics aren't available, I've started using all caps to stress a word. Is there a reason I shouldn't?
Wednesday August 4th 2010, 7:50 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Like the world around us, language is a complex adaptive system. Although the Academy tries to rule the system and control its vector, it fails miserably at doing so. Language is about communications via semiotics, sounds, and gestures. If a writer choses to use a symbol to communicate on paper much the way in conversation one uses sounds and gestures, then so be it. Get over it.
Wednesday August 4th 2010, 4:34 PM
Comment by: Steve Z. (Calgary Canada)
I would like to know what the correct usage is of quotation marks. I have used the squiggles many times as part of my style. When I read the pieces found above, I merely "raise my voice" in my head as added emphasis since I would suspect that is what the author is hoping for when the article was written. A written shrug of the shoulder per se.

If using quotation marks is incorrect, what about underlining, parenthesize or bold text.
Wednesday August 4th 2010, 6:21 PM
Comment by: Andrew K.
Kip, I think you're missing the point of the article. If everyone uses his own rules, how can there be effective communication? That's not complex and adaptive, it's not even communication, it's anarchy. There has be a reasonable expectation of uniformity in order to reasonably understand what a writer is trying to communicate.
Thursday August 5th 2010, 8:44 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Andrew, ad hominems aside, I'm not suggesting that there should be no rules; only suggesting that language like life changes and adapts. Those stuck in old paradigms, pedagogy, and pedantry; are stasis in situ. Language is dynamic and what "is" today "is not" tomorrow. (Ooops, there goes the neighborhood, he used those pesky and navvy quotation marks).
Sunday August 8th 2010, 10:16 AM
Comment by: brindle (Canada)
I think it's high time we leave this unholy rot and corruption of our sacred "English" and form a new, incorruptible language based on ideograms.
Saturday August 14th 2010, 12:31 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
Maybe it's just a QMV "Quotation Mark Virus" which has migrated from the spawning swamp of the printed page and has infected human chatterers with the disease, its main symptom being the uncontrolled spasmodic curling of the index and middle fingers of each hand in the air around selected bespoken words. This epidemic has spread among us so virulently over the last few years it has virtually wiped out an earlier plague called "Call Me Digit-Illustratus" [CMDI] wherein the afflicted contorts his/her hand into a mock-up of a telephone receiver (which is an anomaly to begin with, pretty much relegated to films of the century past along with smoking)and holds it to his/her ear delusionally illustrating telephonic contact. No known cures to these maladies -- and you can "quote" me. --TheErn
Saturday August 14th 2010, 2:27 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
To Kip, your 'Get Over it' comment rankles. Why should we? If something is not clear, time is lost in explaining. If something is abrupt or rude sounding, perhaps it should be said in another way.

Clarity, communcation (which involves settling on patterns that will enable both parties to understand), patience, and common sense are needed to cross barriers among the classes of users.

Think of the audience and bend, think of the situation and try to adjust to it. It is not the job of a newcomer to a job to trample over the standards of speech and writing in any business or enterprise.
Wednesday September 29th 2010, 2:07 PM
Comment by: Lacey C. (Spring, TX)
TheErn - your comment was hilarious. Reminded me of a book ("The Well of Lost Plots" by Jasper Fforde) in which a "myspeling vyrus" destroys the "Bookworld" by changing parrots to carrots, love to lobes, etc.

Personally, the QMV, as you cleverly dubbed it, makes my eye twitch. Being in advertising, my pet peeve is seeing marketing pieces with the company's slogan set in quotes (i.e. Steve's Electrical "For all your heating and cooling needs"). The ironic cast the quotation marks lend to the statement makes me believe it might be not be quite true, or that perhaps I'm missing some sort of double entendre. It's the reading equivalent of being winked at by a used car salesman.

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