Failure is an orphan quote.

Air quotes quotes and orphan quotes around "coffee" and "churros"

If the desire to “go green” leaves you feeling a bit overwhelmed, keep it simple with a “less is more” attitude…

“Go green”? “Less is more”? Why, exactly, are there quotation marks around these phrases (which I found in a newsletter)? Certainly not because they’re quotations.

They’re what my friends Kim and Elizabeth, nimble writers both, call orphan quotes.

Orphan quotes are quotation marks that people habitually use to surround a word or sometimes two. More recently they’ve broken out of the written sphere, becoming air quotes.

I’m very much against them. My hard line on orphan quotes was solidified when I read a pamphlet called “On Punctuation,” which my friend Glenn had given to me.

“Quotation marks should be used honestly and sparingly…” it advised.

Now that I’m able to search for it online, I find that what I thought was a pamphlet actually is a chapter in a book of essays, The Medusa and the Snail, written by Lewis Thomas and published in 1979.

Dr. Thomas’s admonitions have stuck with me through the years:

Above all, quotation marks should not be used for ideas that you’d like to disown… Nor should they be put in place around cliches; if you want to use a cliche you must take full responsibility for it yourself and not try to fob it off on anon. or on society.”

Simply put, people use orphan quotes when they use a cliche or some other form of lazy writing they don’t want to take responsibility for. It’s cowardice.

For a couple years now, my friend Ben has been carrying out a worthy crusade against the misplaced apostrophe. And so I was glad to discover today that the Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks is performing a similar public service by cataloging misused quotation marks.  It’s where I snagged the photo for this entry.

To quote Dr. Thomas: “The most objectionable use of quotation marks … is seen in advertising, especially in advertisements for small restaurants…”  To look at just a few of the blog’s photos amply proves this point.

[ADDITION: And here is the Gallery of "Misused" Quotation Marks.]

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4 Comments

Filed under books, communications, print, reading, Uncategorized, writing

4 responses to “Failure is an orphan quote.

  1. conradcook

    Hey, great post. I agree entirely.

    In college, I urged people to tamper with their professors’ minds by putting scare quotes in the wrong places.

    Not:

    In this paper, I want to deconstruct the “authenticity” of the underlying schemes in Ulysses.

    But:

    In this paper, I want to “deconstruct” the authenticity of the underlying schemes in Ulysses.

    Conrad.

  2. I see many instances of misused quotation marks. Up until now, I had merely noticed them. In the future, due to your piece (and that blog devoted to graphic examples), misused quote marks will leap out at me, force their way into my mouth, and “stick” in my “craw.” As it were.

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