Writing tip: Don't use quote marks to highlight common words

Writing tip: do not use quote marks for common words.
Sometimes writers use quote marks to distance themselves from a word or phrase. They're treating the words as a virtual quote, as if they were saying, 'It's not really me using this phrase: I'm just quoting what other people say.'

Quote marks are difficult to handle correctly, goodness knows. But here's a tip that should be easy to follow. It's so simple: just don't do it!

Virtual quote marks imply something like this:

  • Hey, look at this expression I’ve used!
  • I apologize for using a cliché or a common colloquial expression.
  • I’m being sarcastic. And rather witty, don’t you think?

If the word or phrase in quote marks is genuinely unusual, and you are drawing attention to it as a word, that's fine.

  • I failed the test because I couldn’t spell ‘semitopological.'
  • The 'get' of a stud dog refers to its offspring.

If you habitually use virtual quote marks for the other reasons—beware! This habit can make the writer seem old-fashioned, naïve, insincere, silly or mean.

Always ask yourself whether that word or phrase is genuinely unusual. If not, quote marks may make you seem out of touch with today's common language.

Embarrassing use of virtual quotes:

  • Those ‘boy racers’ are ‘a menace to society.’
  • The antisocial masses love their so-called ‘social media.’

Heaps of other tips like this in Modern Punctuation: a fun course, believe it or not!

1 comment

Jul 29, 2011 • Posted by Alistair

I agree Rachel, any training takes a leap of faith. Some courses are a sure bet though and this is one of those. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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