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Thursday, November 16, 2006

"Bad Grammar"

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-It-All: Quotation marks, also known to our British friends as "inverted commas".

Once upon a time, I believed that everyone understood how to use quotation marks. That was before I started reading the birthday cards my grandmother sent, as opposed to simply taking out the $20 bill and casting the card aside. Whenever I get a letter that starts Dear "Megan", I never wonder who it's from. I only know one person who puts my name in quotes, as if it wasn't ACTUALLY my name and the letter-writer wants to make sure I know it.

When I mentioned this to my dad (after a particularly atrocious Dear "Nat", as I recall), he said that this is her way of saying that we are special. Nice try, Dad. My grandmother is a great person and I love her dearly, but she suffers from the same affliction that so many small-business owners and signmakers have: She thinks that quotation marks are decorations to draw the eye to important words.

Quotation marks have a few uses, mostly in narrative writing and in snarky writing like this blog.

Direct Quotes: The most common use for quotation marks is to indicate that the words inside are the exact words someone else said:

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."

"During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."

"I didn't like it, I didn't inhale and I never tried it again."

You'll see a variation on this in lazy newspapers: the single-word quote. In a newspaper, this usually means that the writer wants to be bitchy but feels like it would be unethical, so he is letting someone else be the fall guy for the bitchiness:

Politicians Consider "Unconstitutional" Law

This way, you see, the reporter's butt is covered. Putting things inside quotation marks gives the newspaper the ability to put the statement off on someone else - always important in the news media, I assure you.

Quotes within Quotes: Our British friends do this the other way around, but I'll explain how we do it here in North America. We use double quotes (") for the main body of the quote and single quotes (') for the extra little bit in the middle:

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

"It depends on how you define 'alone'."

This is as good a place as any to mention that in the States, you put the last punctuation mark inside the quotation marks if that's where the sentence ends. In Canada and other Commonwealth countries, the last punctuation mark goes inside the quotation marks only if it was part of the original quote. I explained this in more detail about a month ago.

Snarkiness and bitchiness: People like me, who never stop picking on others, sometimes use air quotes. On paper, these look like regular quotation marks. Put these around words that you are using ironically, cynically or in some other unusual way. If you're speaking out loud, this is where you would curl your fingers next to your face and turn up your nose to indicate your intellectual superiority:

A very important person has just told me that someone "inferred" that I am a jerk.

Who would like a "download" about my recent conversation with an important person?

Titles of Books: Use italics or quotation marks to indicate the names of books, movies, etc:

I like to watch "Seinfeld".
I like to watch Seinfeld.

Absolutely, Positively Wrong: Never ever ever use quotation marks just because you think they draw attention to something you've written. I don't want to know that "apples" are on sale at your supermarket, because it makes me think that you're not really selling apples. And if you're paraphrasing someone else's words, don't use quotes:

Some guy said "that you are a jerk".

Seriously, I want to download you about "what we talked about".