Quotes When Nothing Is Being Quoted

By Michael Kandel

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.

Published 22 May 2017

2 comments on “Quotes When Nothing Is Being Quoted”

  1. Quote from another source: “Now is the time for all good men.” Now I want to use this quote in my paper. How do I punctuate?
    “‘Now is the time for all good men.'”

    • Double quotes alone do the job. (We will have coterminous double and single quotes only around a short title for a parenthetical reference, where the short title is taken from a quote that begins the title–uncommon and not worth worrying about.)

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