Are we more careful with one another's words than we used to be? Could we – by which I mean those of us in the world of print publishing and its Web components – afford to lose some of the quotation marks we employ so freely and just take responsibility for words in our own editorial voice, without seeking to pin them on to others?
The other day I was consulted on a piece that seemed a tad overpunctuated. It involved a bit of the author's interior monologue, including references to a number of television shows. Each title, which included one with its own question mark, needed its own set of quotation marks.
The author had put the whole thing in quotes, and the result was a cluttered sentence around which punctuation marks swarmed like insects around a streetlamp on a summer evening. My suggested fix was to take out a layer of punctuation – to lose the quotes around the whole interior monologue and let the question mark in one of the titles end the sentence.
Whew. Sometimes less really is more.
These little marks that the British call "inverted commas" are the acrobats of the punctuation world, levitating from the bottom of the line of type to the top. They work singly; they work in pairs.
I sense that they're working harder nowadays for several reasons. In an age of more on-the-record official briefings, writers of all sorts have more opportunities for getting someone's exact words and fewer excuses for not having them. It's often easier for a reporter on deadline (is there any other kind?) to copy and paste a block of type from a press release posted online into a story rather than try to make sense of handwritten notes on paper to fashion a coherent sentence.
Sometimes even friends sharing bits of e-mail take this kind of cut-and-paste approach. Instead of paraphrasing someone's complicated directions to the cottage by the lake, for instance, why not just copy and paste? "Here are Fred's directions."
Today, much "conversation" is written – instant messaging, texting, and, of course, e-mail. But even in live conversation, we have ways of signaling that we're using someone else's exact words or nearly exact. It's not just the "quote, unquote" idiom; even those adolescent-sounding constructions with "like" represent a form of direct quotation: "I got in at 3, and Dad was, like, 'Where have you been?' "
At the other end of the spectrum from the copy-and-paste block quote is the snippet quote, a hallmark of Zagat's restaurant reviews. Perhaps they use "so many" "little snippets" because they want to "remind" the "reader" that the "ratings" are based on the input of "lots and lots" of customers, and that broad base of input is one of the system's strengths. But it all gets a little bit cute, you know?
Not all snippet quotes are created equal. Quote marks are useful in highlighting readers' judgments and opinions. They're less so indicating phrases expressing simple facts. I'm not picking on Zagat. I'm trying to get at that point of taking responsibility for one's words as a writer or editor.
Take, for example, a Zagat review of a restaurant where I have dined, and happily so. It praises the restaurant's " 'adventurous,' 'seasonal' New American menu."
"Adventurous" is clearly a value judgment, and culinary adventure starts in different places for different people. My mother thought I was being adventurous to add oregano to her shrimp Creole.
But "seasonal" is, or ought to be, a matter of fact. Either the chef goes from serious, fortifying brown things in winter to lighthearted, energizing green things in spring (I'm thinking of last night's pea soup here; forgive me) or she doesn't.
And you can quote me on that.
• This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy .