19 August 2009

Emphasis on the "Unquote"

Back in the day (like three or four years ago), I used to get a little ruffled when people would talk about so called "quotes" from famous people.

"There is this quote I love," they'd begin, with a twinkle in there eyes, as mine would contort to match the grimace forming on my face. The reason for my miff was the improper usage of the word "quote" which would have been more properly represented as a "quotation."

Oh the simpler days.

Little did I know that while I was fighting a crusade against people who were hacking the ends off words, a far deeper crime was happening. The travesty of which I am speaking is not the use of the word "quotation," but the very foundational and blatant overuse of "quotation marks" (for instance, that instance was unnecessary) themselves.

Driving around on any given day, you can see them in use in a variety of signs and posters. I've come to the jaded conclusion that why they are in use on many of these signs and posters, is just as much a mystery to their authors as it is to me. One recent example is at a sushi restaurant I frequent. The sign, advertising their lunch deals states that the deals are available "Mon. to Sun." Who they are actually quoting, I'm not sure. Worse even may be the "finger quotations" that fly around at any given gathering of human beings.

"I don't know, I guess people just think they need to use them somewhere, so they just stick them in where it feels good," said Francine Ramsey, president of the International Quotation Regulation Council (IQRC), in an interview I conducted for this post.

In 1964, Ramsey, along with two Russian physicists invented the double quotation mark commonly used today. The breakthrough, which was a bit of a loss for the Russians, whose alphabet does not use quotations, was a self-proclaimed "perfectly balanced syntactical equation cap." Since their discovery, more than four decades ago, Ramsey has lead the way in promulgating the use of the "useful" marks. Admitting that sometimes quotations are overused, Ramsey compared the marks to other, less fortunate punctuation.

"At least it's not like semicolons," Ramsey explained. "I mean, Bill Stewart over at the National Assembly for the Increased Use of Semicolons can't get people to touch those with a ten foot pole; it's pretty sad!"

According to Ramsey, recent talks with the trendy computer maker Apple, have centered around removing semicolons completely from keyboards. In fact, quotations are so far on the opposite spectrum in modern script, that according to a 2008 IQRC study, conducted in conjunction with the FDA, as many as 65 million Americans may suffer from a sort of "compulsive quotation disorder."

During our interview, Ramsey explained that from the IQRC's perspective, overuse wasn't necessarily such a bad thing. In tough economic times, the high use of homemade signs, which inherently contain more improper usage of quotation marks, keeps the royalties coming in.

"It's not like Xerox, we're not going to lose our trademark," she said. "I'm just glad we aren't facing extinction like some punctuation," she laughed gazing out her office window toward a neighboring office building sign that read: "Space Available "Built to Suit." "

"I'm making $500 a month for each of those giant marks," she said smugly, "and that office was where The AND* was based before they had to close down when the Millennials decided the symbol looked too "loopy."

My time with Francine Ramsey made me decided on the need for a little education. So, to you 65 million Americans who may be afflicted with a compulsive use (or misuse, as it were) of quotations marks, this part's for you:

According to my research, which consisted of a 0.29 second Google search entitled "usage of quotation marks," and the content from the uncontested source for all worthy information, Wikipedia, there are five cases in which quotations should be used:

  1. In direct quotations (duh).
  2. When citing irony (e.g. His "superior humor" escaped me.)
  3. Indicating unusual usage (e.g. She said she was taught "real good.")
  4. Titles of artistic work (uh huh)
  5. Nick names (e.g. Jesse "The Body" Ventura)
The biggest problem people run into (and the source of 80 percent of Ramsey's loyalties) is an attempt to emphasize a word using quotation marks, rather than the appropriate italics. Wikipedia notes that this can lead to a misinterpretation that the author is intending irony or an unusual meaning rather than their intended emphasis. "Real" leather therefore begs the question as to the definition of real, just as ""Silence" please" causes us to question the librarian's definition of silence ("I can't even breathe?").

While I run the risk of posting this and being forever "judged" for my quotation use, I believe the post is important, and somewhat overdue. This post alone cost nearly $200 in royalties to the IQRC, think how much businesses across the country are blowing on the misuse of this "valuable" punctuation mark.

At least I'm not worried about cutting off words anymo'


*The Ampersand's National Delegation, a now bankrupt 501(c)(3) non-profit designed to expand the use of the ampersand (&) in day-to-day writing.

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