Quote or Unquote: 'That' Is the Question

Apostrophes evidently remind some people of quotation marks. I say that because an earlier installment here was about apostrophes, and I got several letters in response to it saying that, now that I'd written about apostrophes, I should tackle the even more serious problem of quixotic quotation marks. I think that what most of my correspondents had in mind was those signs that use quotation marks in a way that in effect negates what the sign is intending to say: "VICIOUS DOG," for instance, as a notice painted on a wall, quotation marks included, would be more telling without the quotation marks. Because quotation marks are commonly placed around dialogue as a bracket for spoken words, these quotation marks around "VICIOUS DOG" are, I suspect, supposed to indicate, "Listen here!" or some such thing, and yet they cause the message to be ineffective, since to most of us they impart a sort of "so-called" implication.

I think I first became aware of this "so-called"-ness associated with quotation marks long ago, in the early '30s, when my friends and I bought enough bubble gum to rot our mouths out, mostly to get the baseball cards that came in the little flat penny packs of gum. I doubt that kids can still destroy their teeth quite so cheaply, but I think baseball cards still come with bubble gum.

Almost every player seemed to have a nickname in those days--nicknames were much more common then than today, I think--so the cards had pictures of guys like George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Tony "Poosh 'em Up" Lazzeri, Jay Hanna "Dizzy" Dean and his brother Paul Dee "Daffy" Dean, Charles Leo "Gabby" Hartnett, and hundreds of others. There were also cards showing ballplayers who antedated us by decades, like John "Honus" Wagner and Walter "Big Train" Johnson. Maybe they still print the old-time cards. It's been a long time since I bought bubble gum.

Something Spurious

The point here, though, is that I learned young that there was often something spurious about what appeared in quotation marks. "Daffy" and "Dizzy" were not the real names of the Dean brothers, nor was "Babe" the real name of George Herman Ruth. Even at my tender years, I knew that no parents in their right minds would christen a little baby "Big Train." Quotation marks could give a "so-called," or even a "just kidding" character to what they enclosed. So a sign saying "VICIOUS DOG," in quotes, brings to mind an image more of Benji than of a member of the Doberman Gang.

The irony is even more pronounced when only the adjective is set in quotes. "VICIOUS" DOG conjures up a dear old thing that can barely rouse himself from slumber long enough to mumble, "Woof." Similarly, a sign saying "GOOD" FOOD suggests that you'll more than likely need the paramedics, or at least a shot of Pepto-Bismol.

I remember seeing a sign in a little supermarket in Connecticut: KNIVES AND SCISSORS "SHARPENED." Right away, I pictured a weasel-faced villain destroying a fine chef's knife, chuckling to himself and muttering, "Won't cut whipped cream when I get this baby 'sharpened.' "

A Colloquial Use

There's a colloquial use of quotation marks that I think is no more than about 25 or 30 years old, though I might be wrong. It involves saying, "Quote-unquote" while hooking the air with the first two fingers of both hands, thus sectioning off an offending phrase by opening and closing quotes with lightning swiftness. These super-ephemeral quotation marks are usually used to put a bit of distance between the speaker and the enclosed phrase. "My uncle Ralph is a quote-unquote (hook-hook) pillar of the community," says a guy who wouldn't be caught dead using a cornball phrase like "pillar of the community" without indicating somehow that he's normally much too sophisticated and laid back for such Babbitry.

As this would indicate, there is inherent in quotation marks an element of personal uninvolvement by the speaker or writer. What comes in quotes is almost always either someone else's words, a title, a label of some kind (like "so-called" and "just kidding" above), a cliche or a nickname. So unless you want company, it's probably best not to put quotation marks around your KEEP OUT sign. When you're speaking from the heart, omit the quotation marks. Your biographers will use them when they quote you.

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