Are you misusing quotation marks?

We’d have a tough time surviving without quotation marks. A famous writer once observed, “Quotation marks allow us to identify what someone actually says, as opposed to simple statements being made by the writer.” Okay, I’m that writer, but the quote illustrates one of the primary roles of quotation marks. The other is to denote when something has been taken from another source, used in conjunction with attribution of that source.

There’s a third use for quotation marks that’s not well-understood. They’re often used to imply that something isn’t really what you’re presenting it as. If I write that a necklace was made from “silver” or “real” silver, I’m implying that it’s actually an imitation made from another material. If I say that a particular political candidate is “smart,” I’m suggesting she’s dumber than that familiar box of rocks.

Because many people misuse quotation marks — particularly in advertising and signage — they unwittingly send the wrong message to audiences who know better. For example, if a company’s website says it offers “quality” service, my brain tells me that their work is crap. If their ad proclaims “Our Customers Are Important” with those quotation marks, I assume just the opposite.

Even worse are people who use their fingers to make “air quotes” as they’re speaking. If I ruled the world, that would be a capital offense with no opportunity for appeal.