Quotation marks are a very familiar punctuation device, and we’d have a tough time surviving without them. As a famous writer once said, “Quotation marks allow us to identify what someone actually says, as opposed to simple statements being made by the writer.” Actually, I just made that quote up, but it illustrates one of the primary roles of quotation marks. The other is to denote when something is being lifted from another source.

There’s a third use for quotation marks, and it’s not well-understood. It’s to imply that something isn’t really what you’re presenting it as. For example, if I wrote that a necklace was made from “silver” or “real” silver, I’m implying that it’s actually an imitation. If I said that a particular political candidate is “smart,” I’m suggesting that she’s dumber than that proverbial box of rocks.

Unfortunately, because people don’t understand that, they send the wrong messages to people who do know better. I see it most frequently in advertising and signage. If a company 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. (And I’ll reserve comment on the practice of using initial caps. At Least For Now.)

Of course, the worst offenders are people who use their fingers to make quote marks as they’re speaking. If I ruled the world, that would be capital offense with no opportunity for appeal.