Skip to content

Sending the “Wrong” Message With Quote Marks

Yesterday an art director wrote with a request for validation that she is correct. Copywriters who submit their work to her have been using quotation marks to emphasize words. But she believes that the marks have the opposite effect–that they, in fact, undermine the message. Is she correct?


Here are examples (my own, not the art director’s):

"Genuine" glove leather uppers
A "quality" heirloom piece
A "stunning" onyx pendant

These quotation marks do not emphasize. They destabilize. That’s because quotation marks used this way indicate that the writer intends a loose or ironic meaning of the word. "Genuine" leather is probably fake. A "quality" piece is of doubtful quality. A "stunning" pendant may actually stun us cold rather than awe us with beauty.

If the copywriters’ intention is to emphasize, quotation marks are the wrong choice. Italic type might be the right choice. Or better yet, the writers may find words that communicate without visual emphasis. If the words genuine, quality, and stunning are not persuasive enough, the writers need different words, ones that will speak to their customers. Here are suggestions:

Exquisite [or rich or silky] glove leather uppers
An heirloom of exceptional beauty
A dazzling onyx pendant

I don’t think my suggestions are especially good because I don’t know the customers and what appeals to them. But the copywriters probably do know. 

You may be wondering why it is okay to use "First-rate!" and "Stunning" in things like movie ads. Why are those quotation marks acceptable? Because they are just that–quotations. Somebody said the movie is first-rate. Somebody described it as stunning.

To art directors everywhere: Yes, it is correct to instruct "copywriters" to omit quotation marks unless they are actually quoting someone.

I am just kidding–the quotation marks around copywriters are wrong!


Posted by Avatar photo
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

5 comments on “Sending the “Wrong” Message With Quote Marks”

  • Hi Lynn. I am Carol MA from China. I saw your blog. Thank you for sharing. Recentyl I am learning how to write the business writing. It’s not easy for me .

  • Hi Lynn,
    I have found the same problem with quotation marks. I am a business research analyst and have to emphasize few points in my reports. But, instead of quotation marks, I use Microsoft Word – formatting styles such as ‘Emphasis’ and ‘Strong’.

  • Carol and Chitra, thank you for commenting.

    Carol, good luck with your business writing in English.

    Chitra, when I checked my version of Microsoft Office, I learned that “Emphasis” is the default style name for italic type, and “Strong” refers to bold type. Thanks for mentioning those as styles.


  • I found your postings for the first time today and can’t stop reading through all of your material. I was proof reading an SOP at work and questioned the semi-colons at the end of bullets and decided to inquire online. I found your blog and now I cannot stop reading your material. In a short time this morning I have gained a wealth of information

Comments are closed.