Quotations marks are not, as some people seem to think, a good way to sexy up your signage with bizarre offers of “free” merchandise (meaning you have to pay?) or “special” deals (sounds suspicious).
Putting quotation marks around a word is another way of saying “just kidding!” These so-called sneer quotes give a word an ironic or sarcastic spin.
- Though a member of the “weaker” sex, Claudette routinely thrashed bullies before breakfast.
- Mikhail “borrowed” her Snuggie six months ago and has no intention of giving it back.
But don’t use quotation marks after the word so-called; that would be overkill.
The first time you use a word or expression that might be unfamiliar to your readers, you may want to put it in quotation marks. It could be a technical term, a bit of obscure jargon, or a slang expression that’s out of keeping with the tone of your piece. You can skip the quotation marks for subsequent uses of the word.
- For the Caesar salad dressing, you will need to “coddle” an egg.
- It is safe to say that Mr. Buckley was not “woke.”
Use this device sparingly, or you risk distracting your readers with too much punctuation. And don’t use it with widely familiar words, because that’s just annoying.
- X I’m “hip” to the kids and their “funky” slang!
Words as Words
If you want to talk about a word itself rather than its meaning (for example, “Do you spell ‘color’ with a u?”), quotation marks are a good way to clarify your intention and avoid confusion. Or you can do as I do and use italics instead; both are correct.
- Ming’s eight-year-old nephew confuses “cinnamon” with “synonym.”
- He won the spelling bee with syphilis.
Definitions and Translations
You can put the meaning, or gloss, of a word in either quotation marks or parentheses. The same goes for English translations of foreign words.
- Blandishments is a word used here to mean “tight jeans and come-hither glances.”
- After achieving satori (sudden enlightenment), the monk dedicated himself to practical jokes.
Quotation Marks with Other Punctuation
While commas may go before dialogue, they don’t belong in front of words or phrases that are closely integrated into the rest of the sentence.
- Armin never would have told her to “keep the home fires burning” if he’d known her history of pyromania.
- He told her, “Playing with matches is all very well, but a good insurance policy will keep you warm at night.”
Though the British would disagree, Americans and most Canadians put periods and commas inside closing quotation marks. However, exclamation points, question marks, colons, semicolons, and dashes only go inside quotation marks if they’re part of the element—whether dialogue, title, or expression—being enclosed.
- Sulamith titled her essay on climate change “We’re All Doomed! Doomed!”
- How could you forget the words to “Kumbayah”?
- Coach’s pep talk included an inspiring line from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”: “Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the fandango?”
- For the next class, read “From Weapon to Toy: A Concise History of the Yo-yo,” published in Modern Collector; the pamphlet “Walking the Dog and Other Tricks”; and “Yo Yo Ma: American Cellist.”
- With typical ebullience, Emily Dickinson wrote “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me—”
- “Lice have certainly”—Mr. Jenkins paused and scratched his head—“never been a problem at this school.”
|With typical ebullience, Emily Dickinson wrote “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me—”|
When Not to Use Quotation Marks
As covered above and in Part One, you don’t need quotation marks for epigraphs (quotations at the beginning of a work or chapter), after so-called, or for widely known terms and expressions.
You also don’t need quotation marks for proverbs, titles at the head of a document, or the words yes and no—unless they’re presented as dialogue.
- The guillotiners gruesomely embraced the adage that practice makes perfect.
- How could anyone say no to that scaly little face?
- Smiling widely, Puck replied, “Yes.”
Next time: The mysterious persistence of single quotation marks