Can Quotation Marks Make Your Readers Doubt You?


On Tuesday, I was just finishing up a final editorial check of January’s Author of the Month post.

Editor’s Note: Incidentally, the featured book there is absolutely perfect for writers planning on self-publishing their manuscripts… even just as a springboard into the traditional publishing pool.

I highly recommend clicking here, if only to get the link to buy this book!

A prolific writer herself, this insightful author gave great answers to my questions. Plus, I didn’t have to do much editorial revision at all to make the final blog post flow well.

It was just one spot that stood out to me on my final read-through. Not because of a word choice. Or sentence structure. Or incorrect grammar.

Simply a pair of quotation marks in a perfectly pleasant sentence that went like this:

Jeannette, thank you so much for the opportunity to “speak” to your subscribers.

Reading that, my intellectual and editorial side automatically understood that she put “speak” in quotation marks because this Author of the Month interview was all done via email. We’ve spoken before over the phone, and she’s very engaging and personable. But the Author of the Month posts are currently best done electronically. So there was no literal speaking involved in the creation of this dialogue.

I fully recognized all that. Yet my impressionable, emotional side still went, “Ew!”

Such a strong reaction to something so innocuous and common as quotation marks, right? Well, yes. But it was still a real reaction – and one you’ve probably had many times yourself on your own reading time. So let’s examine it real quick, starting with the Purdue Online Writing Lab definition:

The primary function of quotation marks is to set off and represent exact language (either spoken or written) that has come from somebody else. The quotation mark is also used to designate speech acts in fiction and sometimes poetry.

That’s entirely accurate. However, quotation marks can also intentionally call someone’s exact words into question. For instance, how many times have you seen a headline that read something like one of these:

  • Politician Says She “Didn’t Do It”

  • What You Need to Know About This “Advancement”

  • Celebrity Tweets “Complete” Diet Details

The politician might have actually said, “I didn’t do it.” There might really be some new technology out on the market that’s being hailed as an advancement. And that celebrity might be genuinely promoting his new health plan as something that suits everyone’s every needs.

Yet by highlighting a select few words within quotation marks, it tends to put them in a questionable light. For whatever grammatical or psychological reason, the connotation is that the speaker or writer isn’t being honest.

The visual effect adds a layer of sarcasm. “This is what he said,” it proclaims, “but he’s an idiot. Or a liar. Or some other negative description. Don’t trust him!”

Again, this is a very intentional, common, and well-recognized trick that copywriters and bloggers and editors will use to undermine someone else’s argument, whether validly or inappropriately. Which means that writers of any stripe need to keep that in mind before they publish anything.

Otherwise, they might innocently use quotation marks with the unintentional side-effect of undermining their own words.

And if they’re anything like the previously mentioned Author of the Month, that would be a shame. Because then their words are really, really worthwhile.

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