Authors often use quotation marks when nothing is being quoted. The marks may indicate irony, skepticism, derision—as such, they are sometimes called scare quotes. They distance an author from a term: “Others say this, but I wouldn’t.” Example: “Bob experienced the ‘catastrophe’ of having his tooth pulled.” Bob may have thought it was a catastrophe, but the author of the sentence is letting us know that she does not.

Such distancing is particularly important when a topic is politically sensitive: authors do not want their readers to think, even for a moment, that they endorse a racist or sexist opinion that they are describing or giving an account of.

Quotation marks may also suggest that the term so singled out has a sense slightly different from what is usually meant by it. Example: “Bob wore his usual ‘suit’ to the interview.” The author of the sentence is suggesting that it was not actually a suit. Perhaps Bob pulls out the same threadbare, rumpled blazer whenever he needs to dress up. Or perhaps Bob only ever wears a hoodie and jeans—his version of business attire.

Quotation marks may also be used to emphasize or highlight a term, much as italics or capitalization can serve as a typographic aid to draw attention. Example: “At the ‘burger joint,’ Bob ordered sushi.” The author of the sentence doesn’t want us to miss the culinary incongruity.

The context and the writing may make the intention of the quotation marks clear, but more often than not there is no such clarity. Precisely because there are so many possible ways to interpret quotation marks that are not used for quotation, some uncertainty results, some ambiguity—and, even if the ambiguity is a relatively small matter, we recommend against using them or using them sparingly and with explanation.

Photo of Michael Kandel

Michael Kandel

Michael Kandel edited publications at the MLA for twenty-one years. He also translated several Polish writers, among them Stanisław Lem, Andrzej Stasiuk, Marek Huberath, and Paweł Huelle, and edited, for Harcourt Brace, several American writers, among them Jonathan Lethem, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Morrow, and Patricia Anthony.