Quotation marks are the punctuation symbols used to identify what someone says; they are used in writing to mark the speech of a character. They help us to understand, when reading, the difference between narration and speech.
They are also used to suggest doubt or skepticism, and while this is in fact, grammatically correct, it drives me nuts!
When used to mark direct speech, they work really well. I take issue with the over use of quotation marks, especially when people use them to show that they really didn’t mean what was written at all. I know, in this way they are being used to “suggest doubt or skepticism” (I’m quoting myself here). But here’s my point: if you really have that much doubt in what you are writing, I say you need to go back to the drawing board and figure out just what it is you are confident about and write about that instead! Be direct; be clear; say it like it is and get your fingers off the quotation mark key!
Here are some examples:
1. We are going to have a “surprise” party for Mary. With the quotation marks around the word surprise, the reader is left with a flood of questions: Is this a surprise or isn’t it? Was it originally intended to be a surprise, but Mary somehow found out about it? Who spilled the beans? So if it’s not really going to be a “surprise”, then what is it?!
2. It’s a “lunch” meeting. If I got a memo like this, it would cause me major distress! What does “lunch” mean to the writer of this statement? Is there some collective understanding of the word lunch and so we are to assume that something else will be at the meeting? What is “lunch” anyway? The quotation marks leave me to wonder not only what the word means, but also adds stress to an upcoming meeting that may cause me the discomfort of feeling terribly hungry! Should I slip a snack bar into my bag? Am I supposed to bring a lunch box for myself? Or maybe I’m supposed to bring a dish to share with everyone else at the meeting. Suggesting doubt around the word lunch makes me wonder if I should even go to the “meeting”.
3. He’s going to do it “tomorrow”. Excuse me? Either “tomorrow” means tomorrow or it doesn’t; and if it doesn’t, then when will he do it!? Is he a procrastinator and so I’m just supposed to know that “tomorrow” isn’t ever likely to come? Is the author expressing her own doubt or trying to protect the reader from getting false hopes?
Oh sure, we are all full of doubt, but I think we should be more conscious of just how much doubt we have and do something to clarify the circumstances of our lives. Communication is way too fragile – way too prone to confusion as it is. I vote for simplicity; speak with “clarity”!