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Can Quotation Marks Make Your Copy Look “Less Reliable?”

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Quotation marks.

They’re probably not the most understandable type of punctuation. That title would go to such simple things as periods, question marks and exclamation marks.

But quotation marks certainly aren’t the least understandable type of punctuation either. Hands down, that award goes to the semicolon, the most misused mark in most books.

Commas, meanwhile, can be seen as the most controversial. To prove my point, here’s a simple question: Oxford comma or no Oxford comma?

If you give the wrong answer to the wrong person, you’re going to be in for it – quite possibly getting a figurative black eye or metaphorical chipped tooth before you manage to limp away from the unintended field of battle.

There’s nothing controversial about quotation marks as far as I know. Though they can be used to cause controversy or at least bad feelings.

Knowing how that is could save you from looking less reliable than you’d like in your professional writing.

Pretty much everyone believes that, when they’re quoting someone directly, they put quotation marks around whatever’s being said. In which case, “pretty much everyone” is correct.

In the case above, I’m quoting myself, so the punctuation applies… even though, technically, you don’t have to use quotation marks if you’re using three words or less from someone else’s statement.

In addition, I’m trying to be a little lighthearted, and they can do exactly that – when you’re quoting yourself.

When you’re quoting someone else, however, it can be the marked opposite.

Think about the last time you saw a political headline. Specifically, a political headline that was saying someone said something.

  • Senator So-and-So Says He Didn’t “Accept a Bribe” for New Building

  • Such-and-Such Voters Opt for “Third Option.”

  • Governor ABC Accepts “Award” for Dubious Claim.

If any of those automatically make you want to think Senator So-and-So did, in fact, accept a bribe… Such-and-Such voters are completely crazy for opting for a third option… or that Governor ABC is the scum of the earth…

There’s a reason why.

Grammerly, the digital writing assistant that helps you clean up your written presentation, has this to say on the subject:

Quotation marks around single words can occasionally be used for emphasis, but only when quoting a word or term someone else used.

And even then, this usually “implies that the author doesn’t agree with the use of the term.” The site follows this statement up with two examples:

  • He said he was “working;” it looked to me like he was procrastinating.

  • You call this filthy room “clean”?!

And it adds that, “When quotation marks are put around a word in this way, they are called scare quotes.” That’s because they’re essentially meant to intimidate or manipulate someone into automatically thinking like the writer.

As the post also notes, it’s more than understandable when many writers don’t recognize this. The rules (or at least the common perception of) quotation marks has changed over the years – specifically as society moved from typewriters to computers.

Today though, there are much better ways to emphasize a word, such as italicizing it or bolding it. Even better, you can arrange your words accordingly so your sentence naturally highlights whatever you want to stress.

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