Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Grammar Moment: more about quote marks

In an earlier post, I discussed how to use quote marks in conjunction with other punctuation. This time, I’ll say more about a more fundamental issue – when should quote marks be used, anyway?

The short answer is that quote marks are to be used to show what somebody else says.

If you’re telling what someone said, and you’re giving the exact words that other person used, you use quote marks to indicate what the person said.

“I don’t know about you guys,” Amy said, “but I’m in a groove, and I’m not going home yet.”

All of the words inside the quote marks are exactly what Amy said. If you tell about what Amy said, but you don’t use the exact words she used, you don’t use quote marks.

Amy said she wasn’t tired yet, so she wasn’t going home.

One of the most frequent abuses of quote marks is the attempt to use them for emphasis. The result is usually the exact opposite of what the writer intends. When you put quote marks around a word or phrase, you’re indicating that somebody else believes or says something, but you don’t.

The “help” provided to the flood victims included makeup tips from a major cosmetic company and seasoning packets for preparing freshly-caught catfish.

When you attempt to use quote marks to show emphasis, your meaning can be seriously compromised. Here’s a sign I saw over the Labor Day weekend:


This merchant is telling you that the sale pretends to be big, but it isn’t really. In fact, it isn’t really a sale, either. All the prices are the same as usual; the merchant is just pretending they aren’t.

Here’s another example in which the writer of the sign probably didn’t realize the meaning would be changed by the misuse of quote marks:


If you have a real dog, such as a Great Dane or German Shepherd, it doesn’t have to be on a leash. But if you have a small creature that pretends to be a dog, you have to keep it tied up. My guess is that the writer of this sign really wanted all canines of all sizes to be restrained, but the unfortunate misuse of quote marks completely changed the meaning.


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