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Punctuation Pet Peeve: A Rant on the “Rampant” Abuse of Quotation Marks

(For this fun rant, I’m only talking about double quotation marks, not single.)

(Also, this is all in good fun. Don’t take it too seriously.)

You guys know I have some grammar pet peeves. Like hyphens, apostrophes, and typos in general.

However, I’ve noticed lately that there seems to be an uptick in abuse with another punctuation mark…

Quotation marks.

Good grief, you guys. The misuse of quotation marks is EVERYWHERE.

I think this pet peeve sticks out more to me because the misuse seems to happen most often on signage/notices… and signage is everywhere.

Don’t let quotation marks trip you up

via Pinterest

Your guess is as good as mine as to why this punctuation issue most always happens on signs, but there ya go.

So I had to get this misuse and abuse of quotation marks off my chest. And what better place to do it than here on the blog where I know my fellow word nerds can commiserate with me 🙂

Let’s First Review The Correct Use Of Quotation Marks

Before I begin my rant, let’s briefly go over a few ways to use quotation marks correctly.

Quotation marks for dialogue

Quotation marks are used to signal that someone is speaking.

“Library books are not to be taken outside the school,” said Snape.
“He’s just made that rule up,” Harry muttered angrily as Snape limped away. “Wonder what’s wrong with his leg?”
“Dunno, but I hope it’s really hurting him,” said Ron bitterly.
(From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

Pretty straightforward, right? Surround the text of someone speaking with quotation marks.

Quotation marks for titles of works

Use quotation marks for titles of songs, short stories, short poems, magazine or newspaper articles, and chapter titles.

One of my favorite songs is “Callin’ Baton Rouge” by Garth Brooks.
Have you read the poem “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott?

Again, pretty straightforward.
Don’t let quotation marks trip you up

Quotation marks as scare quotes

This one gets slightly trickier. Here’s what The Chicago Manual of Style states in Rule 7.57:

Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense. Such scare quotes imply “This is not my term” or “This is not how the term is usually applied.” Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.

(That last line is my favorite!)

So let’s see some examples of when quotation marks are used correctly to illustrate CMOS’s point.

The “elegant” house had dirt floors, holes in the walls, and no roof.

See why elegant is in quotes? The house is clearly not elegant, and the author used quotation marks to highlight the sarcasm.

The “anti-nausea” medicine made me throw up.

The medicine clearly didn’t have the intended effect…

Let’s do one more!

My “best friend” told all my dark secrets to the world.

A real best friend would obviously never do that, hence the scare quotes.

Now For The Fun Part… Quotation Marks Gone Wrong

Now that we’ve covered the basics of proper quotation mark usage, let’s get into the meat of my rant. Buckle in, folks!

Can you guess one of the most common misuses of quotation marks? It’s not with dialogue or saying something sarcastically.

Quotation marks are often incorrectly used for emphasis.

And that is just plain wrong. Do NOT use quotation marks for emphasis.

Don’t let quotation marks trip you up

via Flickr

Let me repeat that.


There are other tools we can use for emphasis. Try bolding, italicizing, using a different font/size/color, all caps (like what I did above), or basically anything except quotation marks. Using quotation marks for emphasis casts doubt on what is being said.

What do I mean by that? Well, here are a couple epically wrong (yet hilariously funny) examples of when quotation marks were used to emphasize (via 11 Points):

Don’t let quotation marks trip you up

Don’t let quotation marks trip you up

How Do I Know If I Should Use Quotation Marks?

Please, folks. If you find yourself making a sign and you aren’t sure if you should use quotation marks, check yo’self.

And I have an easy and fun way to do that. Say your sentence out loud, and make the air-quote gesture when you say the word you think should be surrounded by quote marks.

(If you don’t know what air quotes are, the following gif illustrates them perfectly :-))

Don’t let quotation marks trip you up

Practice with me! Say this sentence out loud, and put air quotes around the word fresh (just like Chris Farley above).

I have a craving for some “fresh” sushi.

Did you hear it? By using quotes around fresh, it sounds like you’re being sarcastic… like you prefer old, smelly sushi instead of truly fresh sushi. And nobody wants old, smelly sushi…

Let’s try one more out loud. And I bet you’ve all seen this one a million times before…

Employees must “wash hands” before returning to work.

Say what?! Tell me you heard it when you put air quotes around wash hands?? Are employees supposed to only pretend to wash their hands? ::gags::

Try Not To Laugh Too Hard

I leave with a few more examples of quotation marks gone wrong for your viewing pleasure (via unnecessaryquotes.com):

Don’t let quotation marks trip you up

Don’t let quotation marks trip you up

Don’t let quotation marks trip you up

Did you have as much fun reading this as I did writing it? I knew you guys would understand my punctuation exasperation 😉

Your Turn

Now I want to hear from you! What’s your favorite example of misused quotation marks? Share it with me in the comments!

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  1. A local church had a scrolling marquee that drove me bonkers for weeks:
    ‘Come for “Bible Study” and learn about “God’s Healing”‘
    What?! What are you really teaching people in there?!

  2. I thought this was very entertaining, Caitlyn. As far as the signs everywhere, I feel like I’m “cursed” with the proofreader genes.

  3. The first photo of the “stairs” was probably my favorite- I imagined the door opening to reveal a deep, dark pit or something. Too funny!

  4. “SOOOO” glad I checked out this post, Caitlin. 😉

    Big laugh for the day when I saw the “Stairs”. Ooh, look out; they might be a cleverly-disguised illusion (she said redundantly), or those Harry Potter stairs that decide for you where you’re going.

    And another LOL for the sign admonishing the previous sign-poster; that’s def something I’d do.

    All your graphic examples are hilarious. In both senses of the word. 🙂 (I’ll remember you when next I go for one of my favourites: “sushi”. _snort_)

  5. One time my church put the guest speaker’s name in quotation marks on the bulletin, as if to say “Well, this is what he calls himself, but heck if we know who he really is!”

    Reminds me of this webcomic from a while back called, fittingly, “Quotation Marks”, with some nods to the proofreader in all of us.

  6. My favorite misuse of air quotes is on the TV series, “Friends”. Joey keeps using the quotes around the wrong word, most notably when he apologized. I’m “sorry”.

  7. Oh my goodness, this drives me bonkers as well! My favorite example is when folks put “Happy Birthday” in quotes.

  8. My pet peeve is not quotation marks used wrong (although it comes in a close second). My pet peeve is the misuse of apostrophes.
    I went to the store to buy a few thing’s.
    I got these book’s dirt cheap at a garage sale.
    Can you do a blog post on the misuse of apostrophes????

  9. There are complete websites with these hilarious signs.

    My newest pet peeve is not punctuation (although the one mentioned drives me up a wall that I’m used to) but word usage – not the old vs. the new – but something else. I frequently see sentences like these:

    He’s the kind of person that knows it all.
    She’s the type that knows where to find the answers.
    These are the kinds of people that make me very mad.
    A teacher that gives you high marks for good work is a treasure.

    I’ts WHO, not “that”!! WHO knows it all….. She’s the type WHO know.s…. (even if “…of person” is implied). These are the kinds of people WHO!!! (But they put the “s” on “kind” so they get points for that). A teacher is a person so – A teacher WHO!!!!!

    AAUUGGH…….it drives me nuts. I see it everywhere, everyday, every minute practically.

  10. Here’s another one:
    We better leave (instead of we’d better leave)
    Or, “old-fashion car” instead of “old-fashioned car”.

  11. Haha, this was great. When I use quotes I pause and ask myself if they’re really necessary. And of course, I always appreciate the subtle humor in the Chicago Manual of Style.

  12. My mom is the worst when it comes to using quotes when she comments on Instagram. She puts everything in quotes! Just recently my brother posted a picture of his suitcase and how he was having trouble trying to fit everything in it for a flight to Europe. My mom’s comment said, “You can do it. You’re the “expert traveling man.” And if you can’t, just wear “everything!” Every time I read her comments I think I unconsciously roll my eyes. But, I have two other pet peeves. They’re, their and there. Too, to and two. People really can’t spell these days. And they really don’t care either!

    1. I don't think either grammar or spelling are taught in schools anymore.

  13. Well, I found this sign at a local cafe, it’s not related to quotations but it obviously needs a comma. Lol
    Please don’t touch yourself
    Ask your server for help

    It was in reference to the cups on the shelf behind the sign but, really? Lol!

  14. My favorites are always with the word literally.

    I "literally" love her so much! I "literally" ate this entire meal! This is "literally" driving me crazy! Hmm… apparently not!

    Thanks for the laugh! Literally!!

  15. Yeah, too many quotations are annoying and used incorrectly, but even though it's wrong, we love it because we get to fix it.

  16. Well, at least they didn't write Stair's (I would have used italics but I can't.)

  17. Not exactly the same topic but in the younger generation I have seen a constant misuse between parentheses and quotation marks, usually substituting parentheses in place of where quotation marks are supposed to be. No matter how many times I reteach it, it persists!

  18. Here is another one. Bill asked me "to go to the store." I am not quoting Bill! I am just saying he asked me to go to the store!

  19. I laughed so hard from this text. Thank you for learning and laughing at the same time. I will be back.

  20. I particularly like the "NEW" underwear sign. Never having thought about the history of the misused quotation mark on signage, I'm of the mind that its current popularity is due to the very thing you refer to above: the air-quote. I think it's hard for people to air-italicize or air-bold a word they're speaking, so by default, they air-quote as a means to emphasize a word or phrase, and that has been transferred–incorrectly–to signs. LOL

  21. This is kind of along the same lines:
    Using a colon instead of a comma before a quotation. It seems to be standard practice nowadays.

  22. There must be a blank line (or box) where one is supposed to type/write EXACTLY what is intended to be on a sign. This is, more than likely, expressly stated thusly: "Whatever you input in the blank box is what will be on the sign." Yet, people unnecessarily include "quotation marks" (hahaha) around their text, yielding a sign that hilariously reads, "''Stairs''".

  23. Quotes around "children" on a school district sign? HAHAHA! Maybe they decided the students were all ghouls and zombies, not actual children!

  24. Yes, this drives me crazy, too! And also the rampant abuse of the apostrophe!!

  25. I haven't noticed this rampant misuse of quotation marks before. I don't know if it has to do with where I live, but I haven't noticed it. Seeing these examples makes me cringe. I'll probably start seeing it everywhere now and ask myself why I haven't noticed it before, lol.

  26. One of the most hilarious examples I remember was at a random restaurant I dined at. The subheads on the menu read things like “Chicken”. So of course we wondered what were we really eating?!

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