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Is It Real Cheese or “Real” Cheese?

Quotation marks, like their apostrophe brethren, are humorous when misused. The punctuation mark is used to “make a statement,” unfortunately almost always being the wrong one. It’s a bit like bringing that friend who feels cut-off jeans and a raggedy top is suitable attire for any and every event, including black-tie ones.

Quotation Marks Grammarg

Quotation marks have two uses, the first of which mostly finds a home in PR communications. The quotation marks are used to denote – what else? – a quotation. A PR professional writing a news release would use the marks if or when quoting the CEO, CMO or another person.

The first rule of use is easy enough, but problems sometimes occur with punctuating the quotation marks. Which marks go inside them and which go outside? In simplest terms:

  1. Periods and commas go inside the closing quotation mark.
    “It’s his turn,” Marissa said.
    “I can’t believe he did that,” Marcus said, “but I suppose it’s to be expected.”
  2. Single quotation marks (‘’) enclose a quotation within a quotation.
    Graham stood to give his report about the Revolutionary War and said, “‘Give me liberty, or give me death.’”
  3. Exclamations points, dashes and question marks only go inside the closing quotation mark if they are a part of the quoted statement.
    “Will you be coming home with us?” asked Ryan’s mother.
    “Stop it!” Susan yelled at her brother.
    Who said that “all the world’s a stage”?
    “I can’t believe—” her voice broke off.
  4. Semicolons and colons always go outside the quotation marks.
    We all know what is meant by “quid pro quo”; we just are leery of the term.

The second rule of use is the one that drives many a person, be it copywriter or reader, mad. The rule states that quotation marks can be used to enclose words used in a special sense or to emphasize them, in much the way “quid pro quo” and “make a statement” are above.

The rule would work fine if copywriters and marketers only used quotation marks when highlighting a word being defined or given attention to, but that is not usually the case. Most of the time, quotation marks are used to show irony, i.e., the visual equivalent of “air quotes.”

Again, the use would be fine if it weren’t used liberally or incorrectly. Used liberally, the quotation marks have the potential of becoming the next JT and Jimmy Fallon hit: I can’t “believe” you did that. It’s “so,” like, “ridiculous.” Unlike hashtags, though, an overabundance of quotation marks tends to irritate rather than amuse.

When used incorrectly, the irony is at the expense of the marketer. The “real” cheddar cheese is considered suspect and is left on the shelf because who knows if it’s really real or if the “real” is just a ploy. The “limited time only” sale is looked at askance – particularly if the sign is kept in the shop window for four months. Instead of the sign creating urgency about the sale, it just results in raised eyebrows and wagers about how long the “limited time only” sale will last.

Bagel Shoppe - Cream CheeseThe overriding rule for quotation marks, as it is with most punctuation marks, is only to use them when and where they are required. They need to be used when quoting a person in a news release or article. They also need to be used when denoting that a word is used in a special sense or ironically, but such usage needs to be kept at a minimum. No reader likes to be battered with the “this is irony” club, and no consumer will purchase a cheese that may or may not be “real.”

Erin Feldman is director of editorial services at Tenacity5 and author of Write Right.

Images: quinn.anya, harold (Creative Commons)

About Erin Feldman

Erin Feldman is the director of editorial services at Tenacity5 Media. When she isn’t researching, writing, and editing blog posts and white papers, she writes poetry and essays, draws her favorite Write Right character, and plans what art form to study next. She’s based in Austin, Texas and can be found on Twitter @erinmfeldman.

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