There are a lot of ways to create emphasis in text, but using quotation marks is not one of them. English is confusing; grammar is hard. This is not. There are no loopholes or exceptions. Never, ever use quotation marks for emphasis.
I can almost understand why there’s confusion on the proper use of quotation marks because we tend to interpret text by how it would be spoken. For instance, when you read, “she always gets her way,” you can practically hear the dragged out teenaged-whine for the word “always.” So when we read, “he went to the ‘bathroom’,” we emphasize “bathroom” because that’s how we would hear someone say the phrase out loud.
But quotation marks (when used outside of denoting direct quotes, speech, or specific phrases or terms) are reserved for showing suspicion, doubt and sarcasm. So in “he went to the ‘bathroom’,” it’s safe to think that he didn’t really go to the bathroom. Instead of emphasis, quotation marks create context, which, when spoken, sounds the same as emphasis. Perhaps this is why so many confuse quotation marks for emphasis, and why so many use them incorrectly. This crime against the English language must end.
One of my proudest grammar moments was when my friends and I went to a local chain restaurant for a bite to eat and saw a sign by the register that read:
Try our new “chicken” salad.
I stood. I stared. I felt shame for the public education system. The worker behind the counter asked me for my order, and I suddenly found my purpose in life: correcting signs and ensuring correct grammar for all.
I asked the employee if the chicken salad was made with real chicken. He stared at me blankly for a minute, probably wondering if I was joking or not before saying that it was (just a note—I never joke about the use of proper grammar when it comes to my food).
My companions pleaded with me to stop the lecture, but as Debora Haskel and the TSA say, “If you see something, say something.” I explained to the mostly disinterested employee and his manager—who came along asking if there was a problem (yes, there was; terrible use of quotation marks for emphasis)—that in their effort to emphasize, they’d mistakenly turned their special entrée into suspicious mystery meat.
When we returned later, the sign had been removed. Score one for the grammar and chicken salad lovers out there. If confusion still lingers for you on the proper use of quotation marks, or other grammar questions, contact us or comment below. I’d be happy to help.
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