Unnecessary punctuation – may I quote you on that?

The Monitor's language columnist looks at why so much amateur signage is rife with unneeded quotation marks.

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Enough about the election already. Just for a change of pace, let's talk about unnecessary punctuation – specifically, redundant quotation marks.

A University of Georgia graduate student name Bethany Keeley has been doing just that for some time, it appears. A colleague has invited my attention to The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks: Misinterpreting Bad Punctuation Since 2005.

Each post features a photo of some bit of signage, typically but not always amateur and sometimes handwritten, in which quotation marks seem to undercut the ostensible message. One recent post showed a T-shirt from a moving company with the slogan, "We care."

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I'm properly putting it in quotes here. But as the photo shows, there are quote marks in the original, too. And that suggests, "We don't really care; this is just a slogan the boss had printed on the T-shirts that he makes us wear."

In the same vein, a post from last year showed a supermarket sign, "Welcome to your neighborhood [store name here] – where 'service' counts." Keeley commented on this one, "I think this might be accurate. Once I stood at a deli counter trying to get attention for what seemed like 20 minutes until the bakery guy came over to help, and called me 'baby.' Now, that's 'service.'"

Other posts have featured a restaurant menu offering a "10-oz." steak – hey, either it is or it isn't, friends – and a used-car lot with a sign proclaiming, "We'll sell 'your' car for you." There the quotes suggest that it's a good place to sell a particular kind of hot wheels.

According to an article the Associated Press wrote about her last year, Keeley comes from "a long line of unnecessary-quote watchers." Her blog had its genesis in a long-running family joke. But she's not trying to empower punctuation vigilantes. "I don't consider quotation marks a peeve. I just think it's funny to misinterpret them, almost always."

Ah, but not so fast! John McWhorter, a linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has offered a different way of looking at unnecessary quote marks.

About the time that Keeley's blog caught the attention of the AP, he published a commentary in the (now defunct, alas) New York Sun defending such redundant quotes as "the new boldface."

The underlying conceit of Keeley's blog is that the use of unnecessary quotation marks on signs undercuts their meaning – although, of course, she and her contributors know better. (The question she raises about just what "homemade" rice pudding really means at a restaurant – did someone bring it in from home? – is a good one, however.)

Mr. McWhorter's piece was grounded in his observations of unnecessary quote marks on signs advertising immigrant-run businesses in New York. "Quotations set off something, and it's a short step from setting something off to emphasizing it. For someone who has never read much, at least in English, it's natural to suppose that quotation marks are highlighters, since in a way, they are. Thus I can wrap my head around why someone would advertise their restaurant as serving 'FINE FOOD.'"

He went on to note that there's a consistency in the way that these wrong quotes are used. This suggests to me that they're on the way to becoming fixed in the language, albeit as nonstandard English. McWhorter predicts that the new boldface "will just hang around as an underground alternative punctuation," without being accepted as standard.

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