A retailer in Athens, Ga., recently held a donation drive for the Salvation Army. But it wasn't your typical ho-hum, run-of-the-mill canned food drive. No, this CVS store posted a sign making it clear that its customers were encouraged to drop off not cans but “cans.”

Around the same time, visitors to an unidentified theater were greeted with a sign inviting them to attend a meet-and-greet, not with donuts, but with “donuts.”

Elsewhere, a seafood retailer posted a sign telling customers, “No refund or guarantee on 'fish.'” Surely, any product sold in the spirit of irony should be accepted as-is.

Like a lot of people, I'm often amused by unnecessary quotation marks in signs. It has even crossed my mind that it would be fun to collect photos of them. But this is the Internet age, an era whose motto is, “If you've ever thought of it, someone online is doing it.” So I was delighted, but not surprised, to come across UnnecessaryQuotes.com, a blog that bills itself as a “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks.

It's a place where you can enjoy photos of real signs such as: Please “No” Men Inside Ladies Room, “Bikes” Not Allowed Beyond This Point, and “Buy” One T-shirt 2nd One Free.

While these are funny, they're more than just an opportunity to giggle at others' mistakes. These amusing boo-boos and countless others on the blog and throughout the world are a learning opportunity. After all, even those of us who know enough about it to laugh at such mistakes may not know all the guidelines for using quotation marks. So here's a quick primer to help assure that none of the signs you post on the office microwave end up getting laughed at on the Internet.

The quotation mark's main job is to designate a direct verbatim quotation, be it spoken or written, real or fiction. The president said, “Good evening, my fellow Americans.” The quotation can be just part of a sentence: The president called our situation “a great challenge” Tuesday.

As illustrated in my examples above: Single quotation marks denote a quotation within another quotation. If you want to put a quotation within a quotation within a third quotation? Then alternate regular quotation marks with single quotation marks: “Bob told Mary, 'Please say “yes.”'” There's a reason you don't see this often. It lends itself to a messy page and reader confusion. So try to avoid nesting too many quotes within one another.

It's a common mistake to think of single quotation marks as sort of quotation marks “lite” — as though they carry half the power. But that's not how they work. It should be “lite.”

Most newspapers use single quotation marks instead of doubles in their headlines, but that's just a style convention.

Quotation marks also denote words referred to as words. That is, if I were to tell you that certain sci-fi fans are called “Trekkers,” I would use quotation marks just like that.

People often ask me whether movie, book and play titles should appear in quotation marks or in italics. The answer depends on which style guide you're following. Chicago style recommends italics for titles of major works. Most newspapers follow the older style of using quotation marks. Think of this as a matter of style and not about right and wrong.

Finally, quotation marks can be used to show irony or doubt: Gee, what a “nice” guy Simon Cowell is. And that's what makes the signs so funny.

Fish is just fish until you put it into quotation marks. That's when you know it could be anything but fish.

?JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@ aol.com

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