As some of you may or may not know (depending on how often you read the comments on the Write Practice), I moved to Denver at the beginning of September from the Pittsburgh area. I’m making my way around without a car, which is working out okay for me since I live close to a couple bus lines, and it’s only a twenty or thirty minute commute to my office.
But for the first few days, I rented a car to run some basic errands. When I went to the airport to return the rental, I saw this wonderfully instructive sign at the airport.
And this brings me to today’s grammar lesson: how and when to use quotation marks.
Quotation marks have gained new responsibilities in writing in the past fifty years. Previously, they were pretty exclusively used to mark dialogue. But with the introduction of sarcasm and facetiousness into our lives, they have found a whole new purpose.
Let’s take a look at today’s uses of quotation marks.
1. Quotation marks designate dialogue.
This is probably the first thing you learned about quotation marks in grade school. When little Johnny and Sally had their first conversation about watching Spot run, their conversation was marked by quotation marks.
“See Spot run, Johnny,” said Sally.
“Spot runs fast!” said Johnny.
“Run, Spot, run!” said Sally.
Nothing fancy about that. When someone starts talking, open the quotation marks. When they stop, close the quotation marks. Make sure your ending punctuation is inside the quotes.
2. Quotation marks designate titles of poems, articles or shorter works of writing.
Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of my earliest memories of exposure to poetry. “Hemingway’s Brush Strokes” is the most popular post on the Write Practice.
Any time you are making reference to a scholastic article, newspaper article, or anything similar, use quotation marks around the title of the article/poem/blog post.
3. Quotation marks reveal the use of sarcasm, irony, euphemisms, or slang.
It’s become a thing in American culture to use air quotes. I realize we have some overseas readers, so for all those unfamiliar, air quotes are when you take the first two fingers of your hand and curl them like bunny ears.
The dude in this Wikipedia article has it down.
Air quotes designate that what you’re saying should not be taken at face value. You are being sarcastic or lying outright. In your writing, they’re used in the same way. For example:
Alice sat on a park bench and watched the “runners” turn their heads towards her, trying to make eye contact.
The quotation marks in this example indicate that the runners aren’t running so much as checking her out, and are being less than subtle about it.
Going back to the example of the sign from the airport above, the quotes around “keys” would indicate that the rental facility doesn’t mean for you to leave your actual keys in the car, but since they obviously do want you to leave your keys, the quotes here are completely inaccurate.
Grammarphiles everywhere are outraged.
Every citizen has the right to live in a grammatically correct world.
For fifteen minutes, write a letter of protest chastising the car rental agency. Make sure you use as many quotes (correctly) as you can. Be sarcastic. Cite made-up articles as “sources” (putting the titles in quotes, of course). Finally, use some dialogue just to show this “agency” the right way to use quotes.
Post your letter of protest in the comments. We’ll print them all out and send them to the car rental agency to get them to change their stinkin’ sign.
About Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.