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The “Overuse” of Quotation Marks

Lately I have been seeing unnecessary quotation marks "everywhere." The quotation marks I just used in the previous sentence are unnecessary, as are the ones in the title of this post.

Quotation marks are perfect when you want to help your readers recognize you are using a word in a special way. You may be using it loosely or ironically, not literally or sincerely. The quotation marks are like a wink to let your readers in on your clever choice.

These sentences illustrate the correct use of quotation marks to show a special use:

  • He drove us to his "cabin" in the woods. [It was not a cabin. Maybe it was a rickety shed. Or maybe it was a 4,000-square-foot luxury home. The reader will learn more in the rest of the message.]
  • Judy's "occupation" is chief worrier and checkbook balancer. [It is not really an occupation. The quotation marks signal the reader not to think of this as a job, not even for a moment.]
  • Her "invoice" was a torn, used envelope with a dollar amount and her signature scribbled on it. [The quotation marks show the reader that the word invoice is used loosely. Without them, the reader may stumble and ask, "That's an invoice?"]

Here are incorrect examples (disguised) that have piled up in my computer recently:

  • In "designing" this project, we considered everyone's input.
  • I don't need to play "middleman" as long as I am "in the loop."
  • I wonder if this book was "ghostwritten."
  • We simply do not have the "bandwidth" to take on this responsibility.
  • I am certain this program will be a "go."
  • He is very "bullish" on finding an IT solution.
  • We don't have the budget because we put it all into one training "event."

Not one of those examples uses the word or phrase in quotation marks in an unusual way. The quotation marks suggest a loose usage, though, so they detract from the writer's simple message. They make us wonder what "designing" means in the context of the sentence and whether "in the loop" means something unusual.

I was inspired to write this blog post because of an email I received today that began with this sentence:

  • Here is a response from a "typical" attendee.

I was going to call those quotation marks wrong, but I have reconsidered. I am guessing the writer wants to indicate that no attendee is typical. Although that point may be debatable, I'll accept it along with the quotation marks that make it a point. 

So are you "with me" about the overuse of quotation marks? Let me know what you are "seeing."

Syntax Training

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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.

11 comments on “The “Overuse” of Quotation Marks”

  • Hi, Scott. You may be worrying that your readers will not understand some words you have chosen, and the quotation marks are representing some nuance you want to bring to the words.

    You might want to try different words when you find yourself using quotation marks. In my examples, the word “bandwidth” and the phrase “in the loop” are cliches. Other words would not need to be dressed up in quotation marks to suit the situation.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • Interesting and salient subject. I find the *overuse* of quotation marks and other forms of improper emphasis distracting as well.

    That being said, it is often difficult to tell when the emphasis (I choose to call it emphasis overutilization instead) is properly used; sometimes there is just not enough context to make that determination.

    At any rate, your reminder is a good one to keep in mind – I should think that we consider emphasis overutilization as often as we consider the cliche conundrum… (and the trailing elipsis confusion)

  • This is a great post, Lynn.

    How do you feel about enclosing taglines in quotation marks, particularly on marketing materials? For example, the plumber’s truck or ad that says
    “We fix it right the first time.”
    Or worse,
    We “fix it right” the first time.
    Egad! Might they have been thinking that their quote marks emphasize their words?

  • Hi, Cookie. Yes, I think they are using the quotation marks for emphasis. I once sat through a workshop where the instructor wrote every important word in quotation marks. I thought I would go crazy but survived the day.

    No, the plumber should not use quotation marks. The marks suggest that he or she is quoting someone. And “fix it right”? I agree with you: Egad!

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • Hi, Mickey. I agree that it can be difficult to tell when emphasis is correct. But keep in mind: Quotation marks are not to show emphasis–they are to show a special use or misuse of a word.

    For emphasis, we can italicize or underline.

    Do you agree?


  • Another instance that I have found the use of quotation marks is in a reply email to you. The reply will contain a quoted word which you used in your original email and either used it incorrectly or misspelled it. Kind of a subtle criticism. Example: Yes I am “ok” with it.

  • Thank you for addressing a pet peeve. In one of its online writings, CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE said that overuse of quotation marks made a writer’s work look “jittery and uncertain” (I put that in quotes because I am quoting CMOS). The printed 15th edition of CMOS goes further, commenting that one should not put in quotes a term with which the reader or the writer is familiar. Using quotes implies a lack of familiarity with the usage. The 16th edition expands the topic.

  • Hi, Paul. Is it possible that the material is in quotation marks because the newspaper is using someone else’s words? When I clicked through to the paper, that seemed to be the case with two articles I scanned. But I’m not sure.

    Thanks for dropping by.


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