Quotation marks, non-necessity of

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One is in favor of diversity in the blogosphere, of course. And yet somehow, when one learns that there now exists a blog entirely devoted to pictures of signs in which quotation marks are used incorrectly (used as if they were some sort of special font face like italics), one is somehow tempted to think that we are in danger of running out of words like esoteric and arcane. Still, check it out. Some of the pictures are quite astonishing. Keep in mind that in many cases people paid good money to have these signs made. They may even have paid a dime or two extra per quotation mark. Or "quotation mark", as they would put it. All one can tell you about one's own reaction is that one found some of them jaw-dropping. One's jaw actually dropped.

[Memo to self: NEVER get stuck in a clause sequence using indefinite-reference one. There is no way out. One ends up sounding like an inexperienced member of the royal family being interviewed on TV. And one hates that.]


  1. John S. Wilkins said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 3:37 am

    One approves, and blogged it:


  2. Mark Milan said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:57 am

    I believe some internet marketers increase the effectiveness of their sales pages' headlines by putting them in quotes.

  3. Adrian Mander said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:18 am

    "Funny stuff."

  4. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:22 am

    A lot of the examples seem to use quotation marks as a form of emphasis, rather like CAPITALISATION or "underlining". Others may be using them as a generalised appeal to authority – it's not just me asserting my bread is good for you, look, here's a quote, it is "Good For You" bread; it's not just us saying this is a residential area, it is a Residential "Area" as defined by zoning laws.

    Some seem, as the blogger intimates, to be nudge-nudge wink-winks or sarcastic – yeah like this is real "cornbread", or yeah, you're a sucker if you believe this "discount", which is presumably not the effect the signwriters were going for (unless the signs were written by some under-appreciated drone issuing subversive caveatemptorial warnings to potential victim-customers).

  5. Rachael said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:33 am

    My grandmother is notorious for using quotes for emphasis in letters and cards, which leads to some unintended meanings:

    Hope you have a "happy" birthday.
    Congratulations on your "special" day.
    Lots of "love", Nanny.

    She'll also put hand-written quotes around parts of the printed text of greetings cards in the same way.

  6. davek said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:43 am

    Brilliant. I love the way the quotes give some of those signs an unintended sarcastic tone.

  7. Hillary said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 7:39 am

    I love that site! For me, it goes hand in hand with lowercasel.blogspot.com, which helpfully documents the incorrect use of lowercase l in otherwise uppercase words. "YARD SAlE" anyone? One says esoteric and arcane, I say hilarious.

  8. Dan Scherlis said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 7:39 am

    My favorite example example of indefinite-reference-one narcosis ("IRON"?) would be Fats Waller's mild, but playful and insinuating, example: "One never knows. Do one?"

    And, apropos yesterday's sentient-ant linguistic-comic comment thread, how nice of the unnecessary-quote blogger to provide an example of "sentience" as used yesterday by XKCD and Mark Liberman:

    The sign: "No" alcohol.
    The snarky caption: You see, alcohol itself became sentient, and said one thing: no.

    Memo to self: If you don't control your fondness for compound-N NP-construction, you're going to use up all the hyphens.

  9. Zubon said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 8:05 am

    If quotation mark blogging is too esoteric for you, how about cilantro blogging? How about anti-cilantro blogging? Google is your friend: there are competing sites.

  10. Akshay said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 8:14 am

    The new.bbc.co.uk feed which one can see by clicking the Latest Headlines bookmark in Firefox also has a lot of (i think) unnecessary quotes.

  11. mae said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 8:30 am

    My favorite was in a grocery store years ago. Two different types of tomatoes:

    Label 1: Vine Ripened Tomatoes, $2 a pound
    Label 2: "Vine Ripened" Tomatoes, $1 a pound

    I'll check the quote blog to see if this made it.

  12. greg said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 8:31 am


  13. Troy S. said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    I remember when I was at Naval Air Station Pansacola the chow hall had signs like :

    "Do not" take food items from the Mess Decks.

    Which is sort of like saying it with a wink and a nod. I think they secretly want people to take the food but just can't say it outright do to official policy. I was actually aware of the website at the time, and thought of taking a picture, but couldn't sneak a camera in.

  14. kip said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    Are quotation marks used like this in other cultures (specifically, hispanic ones)? I was in Mexico a few months ago and noticed that the signs did this everywhere. Like: "Rodriguez" Auto. It was more than just a few signs, this seemed to be the normal way they put emphasis on things there. Maybe it is seeping across the border?

    Here is one example: "Mission Bautista" Independente. Which translates to something like: Independent "Baptist Mission". (photo here: http://www.vacant-nebula.com/photo_view/f30196ed/a-church-in-fishtown/)

  15. sleepnothavingness said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 9:50 am

    Is that like deliberate misspelling of (non-existent) items such as "Cheez", when there is no real and actual cheese present in a product, so as to avoid prosecution? Extensible to names like "Kwik-Fit" and "Tastee Foods"?

    When I've fallen into the "one" trap before, I've generally squirmed around it by using weasel tactics to break up the repetitions, for example using "it is somehow tempting to think" insead of "one is somehow tempted to think". But that's probably because I'm lazy, pretentious, and incompetent.

  16. TB said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    I've seen this site before, and "misused" quotation marks being a well-known bugaboo of peevologists, did not find it surprising at all. (Given all these examples, might we say that "quotation marks" are now used "for emphasis" in a special "signboard orthography"?) However, the lowercase L blog referenced above has managed to utterly astonish me.

  17. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    Blame it on an education system that allows nitwits to teach children through 8th grade despite having zero expertise in a single content area.

    Occasionally when I travel, I am seated with an elementary school teacher. In a typical episode, we exchange pleasantries, and when the teacher learns that I'm a college English professor, she (for it's usually a she) blushes and confesses that English was her worst subject.

    I remarked on this once in a college-wide committee, and a math professor exclaimed, "That's funny. They say the same thing to me."

    Is it any wonder that [supply your own gloom-and-doom observation] ?

    (My apologies to the many wonderful K-8 teachers who put the nitwits to shame.)

  18. Adrian said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    Akshay, although they look odd, the BBC quote marks are there to show that the words are quotations or allegations.

  19. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    I noted the "'unnecessary' quotation marks" blog and the "lowercase L" blog in a post on Aug. 19, 2007, "Peeveblogging marches on." That was a followup to my Oct. 25, 2005 post that introduced the term "peeveblogging" (illustrated by blogs railing against the misuse of "literally" and apostrophes).

  20. rpsms said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    When looking at those signs, I am reminded of the 80's anti-drug campaign which /neglected/ to use quotation marks, along with an extra bang in the middle:

    Just say No! to drugs!

    An obvious and, if I may say, most humorous parsing of the sentance includes a long pause after "No!"

  21. Joe said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    One of the posts (http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/2009/09/uh-ok_19.html) also shows an interesting branding practice in Texas: the use of a the dangling "and" such as this one. I suppose that the dangling "and" functions like "plus" or an abbreviation of "and more" to indicate that they sell other stuff besides what their name suggests. Has anyone seen this practice elsewhere?

  22. Bloix said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    What this tells us is that many small business people do not consider the marks " " to have anything at all to do with quotation and that they utilize them for emphasis. We misread them as quotation marks because we misunderstand the typographical convention that's being used by the sign makers and is presumably well-understood by the great majority of the customers. That's not to say that the signs aren't funny, but the humor is in our misunderstanding, not their error.

  23. Robert Coren said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    One couldn't help laughing out loud at your parenthetical.

  24. Jonathon said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    If you want to see something even more bizarre, check out the lowercase L blog.

  25. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    Further to Adrian's clarification on quotes in BBC headlines, see this LL discussion of British headline idiom.

  26. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    With all due respect to Bloix, who is on to something, we are actually laughing at the ignorance of the sign makers (and thus at the ignorant). "God", it "feels" "good" to "be" "superior".

  27. mand said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    I've known about the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks for some time, but i can't bear to look at it very often!

    On my mother's camera – and i keep trying to retrieve it so i can send it to be shown on that blog – is my personal favourite example, which isn't even quotation marks but a misplaced apostrophe. I can't usually bear those either, but this one was in the middle of a word (which may (it's a while ago) have been adults or something like that). When i get hold of it, that will be made public!

    Only recently come across you, and enjoying your blog, thanx.

  28. Zubon said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    Some wikis use double-apostrophes as markup for italics where html might use &ltem&gt or &lti&gt. These people are not illiterates using quotation marks for emphasis — they are devoted TV Tropes contributors who are stuck in the habit.

  29. Zubon said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    I swear, the preview showed the less-than and greater-than signs properly in that comment.

  30. Neuroskeptic said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    You might think this kind of thing would get less funny eventually, but somehow it never does.

  31. Craig Russell said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

    I have tried (with the help of Language Log) to be less prescriptivist in my views about other people's usages, but I don't think this quotation thing will ever stop grating on me. I suppose one (uh-oh—here we go) could take the view that all this evidence proves that there's a new usage for this piece of punctuation brewing, and maybe it'll be standard in 50 years. Who knows?

    And maybe I've just gotten my sensors out of alignment from years of exposure to these things, but they don't all look entirely wrong to me. In particular, the one advertising "how-to" videos. I'm not sure I'd use quotes there myself, but they seem justified to me (1) because using "how-to" as an adjective seems slightly slangy, and the quotes help to prevent one from trying to incorporate the words into the sentence's syntax (e.g. something that teaches you how to video), and (2) because "how-to" functions as something of a title, and quotes can be used to mark titles.

    In a similar vein, wouldn't you write:

    I don't want to play some kind of "what word am I thinking of" guessing game here.


    Obviously this defense only works for this one instance, but I don't think all of these quote mark "mistakes" are necessarily examples of the same usage.

  32. Rick S said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

    Mr Fnortner said: "God", it "feels" "good" to "be" "superior".

    I was amazed at the voice in my head while reading that—it was William Shatner!

  33. Karl Weber said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    If you find the quasi-royal "one" amusing, you will enjoy this claymation video made as a promo for BBC America:


  34. Sili said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

    Being of Northgermanic extraction one is quite fond of the third person impersonal. And of compound nounphrases.

    The Comics Curmudgeon seems somehow relevant

    He comments here regularly now, but I don't recall his exact nick.

  35. kip said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    I've put up a small set (6 photos) of pictures I took of these kinds of signs in Matamoros, Mexico last winter. This seemed to be the norm there. I'm not sure if this is common in all spanish-speaking countries, or just those in the new world, or just in Mexico, or maybe just in north-eastern Mexico. But "quotation" marks were used for "emphasis" like this on most of the signs I saw.


  36. Rodrigo said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

    @kip, yes it's common. No, it's not "correct". They have the same intended use in Spanish as in English, and the emphasis misuse is as much of a peeve for us as it's for you.

    PS. It's fun to use quote marks when peeving about quote marks!

  37. language hat said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    NEVER get stuck in a clause sequence using indefinite-reference one. There is no way out. One ends up sounding like an inexperienced member of the royal family being interviewed on TV.

    There's a famous bit in either Portrait of the Artist or Ulysses where Joyce makes fun of this with a sentence that has increasingly incoherent examples of "one" and "one's," but I can't seem to google it up, so I'm tossing this out there in case someone knows the quotation.

  38. Hannah said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

    In the second posting, (permalink here http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/2009/09/use-as-it-were.html) there seem to be quotations around a non-constituent phrase! I seem to remember a post here a while ago about finding titles and names that were not constituents, interesting subject.

  39. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 3:49 am

    I recall some years ago when a friend first mentioned this pet-peeve to me and asserted that all these misuses of apostrophes were intended as emphasis. This surprised me because I'd never considered this—I'd always read such signs as actual (thought often strangely implausible) quotations. For example: "'Hot' Donuts!", I would read as quoting a real or imagined person describing the advertised donuts as "hot".

    While I realize now that many quotations are indeed misused as emphasis, I do think that sometimes they truly are intended to be quotations of some sort. For example, on the front page of that blog today is a sign that reads, "please clean the changing table with 'changing table sanitizer' after use". This is supposedly necessarily a misuse but I disagree. Maybe "changing table sanitizer" isn't descriptive—maybe it's a name. Maybe there's a bottle labeled "changing table sanitizer".

    There's also a photo of a van with a slogan under the business's name: "shrimply the best". The quotation marks may be unnecessary, but surely they're correctly used. A slogan is a "saying", we're expected to understand that it's quite literally something people say. It's a quote.

    The blog mildly pushes my anti-prescriptivist buttons because, if I'm correct in my two above objections, then it follows the typical annoying prescriptivist pattern of naively over-applying a learned rule for the purpose of mocking presumed social inferiors. I'm surprised to see you link to it without any criticism.

  40. Fluffy said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    The LoC has a Walker Evans photograph from 1935 illustrating the popular use of quotes, but even more so inward-downward pointing arrows, to indicate emphasis:


  41. Sandra Wilde said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

    For what it's worth, the owner of the "quotation marks" blog frequently gets complaints from people that say it's just a new form of punctuation and that it's stupid to read them as if they were ironic, but she says she knows that and the blog is just for fun.

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