Misused Quotation Marks are “Bad”

01 Sep 2009


When it comes to writing, there are dozens of rules just begging to be broken. Some are flexible and give you a little wiggle room — like hyphenation or deciding whether to use the comma before the “and” in lists.

But there are other grammar rules that you just don’t break. You don’t tweak them; you don’t adjust them to suit your personal preferences. Ever.

Case in point? Quotation marks.

Somehow people got the idea that quotation marks are like the Swiss Army knife of punctuation: useful in any situation and interchangeable with exclamation points, bolding, underlining, italics, or ALL-CAPS SCREAMING. Others use them as what I can only assume is decoration, sticking them into sentences and paragraphs at random because they look sorta pretty – the adult version of dotting your i’s with little hearts or big bubbles.

Sadly, misused quotation marks, pretty or otherwise, just make you look less credible. It’s the same as having a website full of typos and broken links. Or spelling your CEO’s name wrong in the company newsletter. (Well, maybe not that bad – you probably won’t get fired for overzealous quotation mark use. But still, it’s bad.)

The Do’s and Don’ts of Quotes

Not sure when quotation marks are appropriate? Here are the basics.

DO:• Use quotation marks when you are quoting someone’s exact words. (“Don’t blame me,” she said. “I just work here.”)
• Use quotation marks when you are quoting someone’s writing. (In his review, the critic wrote that Fat Momma’s House 5 was “a visually stunning masterpiece, worthy of an Oscar.”)
• Use quotation marks when you’re being sarcastic. (My “best friend” stole my boyfriend, my car, and my favorite pair of argyle socks.)

• Use quotation marks when other parts of the sentence already tell the reader you’re being sarcastic. (My so-called “best friend” stole my boyfriend, my car, and my favorite pair of argyle socks.)
• Use quotation marks when you’re paraphrasing someone’s words (She told me “not to blame her, she just worked there.”)
• Use quotation marks when you want to emphasize a word. More often than not, random quotation marks sound unintentionally sarcastic.

For example:
• All “fried chicken” dinners half off.
• This offer is good for a limited time “only.”
• Our team of “professionals” offers full-service IT solutions.
• I was “literally” on the edge of my seat.
• Open “24 hours.”

A good proofreading job is the best defense against misused quotation marks and other grammatical blunders. If punctuation isn’t exactly your thing have a friend look it over and edit it.

Need a second opinion? Post your quotation-mark questions here, and we’ll be happy to give you our “professional” opinion.

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