Q is for Quote marks

21 07 2010

Enjoying the relative cool of Central Park last week, I discovered that the bench that I was sitting on bore a message:

Wishing no disrespect to the deceased, I was intrigued, nevertheless, by the quote marks around abruptly. How was I meant to interpret them? What extra nuance of meaning did the author of this tribute intend? What, in short, is the pragmatic force of “abruptly” as opposed to abruptly?

Quote marks, after all, are not innocent bystanders in the processes of text creation and interpretation. Traditionally, of course, they separated quoted matter from the writer’s own words. Hence, they’re called (variously) quote marks, quotation marks, speech marks and so on. But they’ve come to fulful a number of other functions too. Look at these examples of headlines, all taken from the BBC News website on a single day, along with the first line of the accompanying report:

Pakistan’s ISI ‘supports’ Taliban

Pakistan’s intelligence service has direct links with the Taliban in Afghanistan, a report claims, but Pakistan denies it.

Slovak opposition ‘wins’ election

A centre-right coalition wins a majority in Slovakia, but the prime minister says he will still try to form a new government.

‘Israeli spy’ arrested in Poland

Polish authorities have arrested a suspected Israeli agent in connection with the murder of a Hamas operative in Dubai in January.

Japan PM warns of debt ‘collapse’

Japan is at “risk of collapse” under its huge debt mountain, the country’s new prime minister has said.

‘Threat’ to porn site visitors

Visitors to porn sites are at serious risk of being exploited by cyber criminals, a study has suggested.

Adobe fixes ‘critical’ Flash flaw

Adobe has fixed a “critical” security flaw that had the potential to allow hackers to take control of affected computer systems.

‘Bullying’ link to child suicides

As many as 44% of suicides among 10-14 year olds between 2000-2008 may be bullying-related, a charity suggests.

Only one of these seems to flag  direct speech quotes – the one about the Japanese debt collapse. It seems that the others serve to distance the writer (and website sponsor) from some kind of assertion: they act as a form of hedging or mitigation. Note how often they collocate with verbs like claim, deny, suggest, suspect, as well as with modals like may. The doubt implied by quote marks is why they are popularly known as  ‘scare quotes’. In some cases they even suggest that the claim is so disputed as to be false, as in the example: Slovak opposition ‘wins’ election. Note also how many of the hedged items have negative connoations: spy, collapse, threat, bullying, etc. It’s as if the BBC doesn’t want to be too closely associated with reporting bad news.

But just as interesting as the cases where quote marks are used, are the cases where they are not – and I wonder if there isn’t a covert political agenda in operation here. For example (from the same webpage on the same day):

Burma denies nuclear programme

The Burmese government has denied recent reports that it is developing a nuclear weapons programme.

Cuba frees paraplegic dissident

The Cuban government has freed a jailed dissident and moved six others to jails closer to their homes.

Clash reports on Iran anniversary

Sporadic demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities have been reported on the anniversary of the disputed presidential election.

What would the effect have been, had nuclear programme, dissident, and clash been in quotes?  Given their absence, can we  infer that the BBC feels less need to hedge when reporting on some countries than on others? Is not using quote marks a veiled form of criticism? To me, all this suggests that the way quote marks are used (or not used) might be a useful focus for raising awareness about the ideological sub-text of texts – does anyone know of material that does this?

But none of this solves the mystery of the ‘true New York lady’ – neither her life nor her manner of leaving it!



15 responses

25 07 2010
Alexander Makarios

Very interesting post! I’ve recently had a fairly enjoyable conversation about how quotation marks were used in headlines. This particular craze is quite new here in Greece and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Anyway, we concluded that speech marks were used when the language in quotes was not politically correct and should not be used in the context of news reporting.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

26 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Alexander – yes, the use of quotes to distance the writer from his/her content would logically extend to issues of political correctness. A writer, for example, might wish to disassociate him/herself from a usage which is NOT politically correct, as in “The apartment was decorated in an ‘oriental’ style”. Or he/she might want to signal a lack of sympathy with a prescribed PC usage, as in “Comments should be addressed to the ‘chairperson'”.

The practice you’re referring to sounds more like the former.

26 07 2010

An interesting post. There’s a good article on the distinction between ‘greengrocer quotes’, ‘scare quotes’ and ‘mendacity quotes’ here:

26 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Keith for that link – which I recommend anyone interested in the issue should visit. I like the distinction between ‘greengrocer quotes’ (a form of adding emphasis, not much different from underlining or using capital letters), ‘scare quotes’ – where the writer doesn’t identify with the usage (as in the PC and non-PC examples in my previous comment), and those which might best be described as ‘claim’ quotes. It’s worth quoting in full from one of the comments on the blog that Keith linked to:

As a headline writer on national newspapers in the UK, I can confirm that these are ‘claim’ quotes – they’re a distancing device, like scare quotes, but unlike scare quotes they’re not meant to carry any value judgment, quite the opposite. They are most often used when putting headlines on reports of court cases when one side, eg the prosecution, has presented claims that could be challenged by the other side, and they are meant to indicate that the paper is reporting a claim, not a fact, either in case the defendant is found not guilty and then tries to sue the newspaper for having presented something in a headline as a bald fact when a court has ruled that it is a falsehood, or, more commonly, to avoid being charged with contempt of court because the headline is seen as prejudicial.

In the example I cited initially (the text on the park bench) I’m assuming that the use of quotes around ‘abruptly’ is not a ‘claim quote’ – i.e. it is not motivated by the writer’s need to disassociate him/herself from an unproven claim. So, the quotes are either greengrocer quotes, intended to add emphasis (she left VERY abruptly), or scare quotes – a case of the writer not entirely in agreement with the proposition expressed (somebody else said she left abruptly, but I don’t agree). Or perhaps (and yet another function?) the writer is being ironic, and means the exact opposite of what he/she has written: i.e. She left very slowly.

27 07 2010
Alastair Grant

A few years ago when people still wrote letters to each other, I used to get letters from a friend who would unfailingly use quotation marks around her adjectives. I didn’t seem to matter which adjective was used, they would always be in quotation marks.

I was a little offended at first, as she thanked me for my “lovely” letter and I assumed she was being sarcastic, until I realised that she was using quotation marks for EVERY adjective.

29 07 2010
Jessica Mackay

On the subject of artificially highlighting elements of discourse what do you make of the use of asterisks in certain media, e.g. Stephen Fry on Twitter (20/7/10)

Heigh. Congratulations Londonderry. Hard luck Norrers and Sheffers and Brum.*stifled sob* We’ll return more powerful than ever. Muahaha.

Or Heat magazine

Nicole has split from long-term boyf *sad face*

They seem to be trying to indicate a genuine emotion while maintaining the levity of tone of the context. This needs a certain complicity between the writer and reader.

When I first read the “abruptly” in your example above, it jarred, but my eventual interpretation was that the word was being used euphemistically. The writer may have meant ‘suddenly’ or ‘violently’ but discarded those choices as innapropriate for the context. If there is a shared knowledge, this may be directed at the readers who know the circumstances of this lady’s death.

Then again, this may just be an indication of a worryingly morbid turn of mind on my part.

29 07 2010
Jessica Mackay

‘Genuine emotion’ and ‘Heat magazine’ in the same sentence?
What was I thinking?
Possibly (with apologies to Mr Fry) they are trying to convey the appearance of genuine emotion. Of course not meant to be taken too seriously.

30 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Jessica – wasn’t the emphatic use of asterisks an earl email device, to counter the absence of italics or bold. But Fry seems to be using them as parentheses, or asides, or to indicate ‘stage directions’. Is this usual?

And I think you might be right – that “abruptly” is a euphemism for something like “catastrophically” or “gruesomely”! The quote marks imply another kind of distancing of the writer from the propositional content, this time for decorum’s sake.

29 07 2010
Jonathan Aichele

As an American who now does a lot of his reading with the BBC (working at the Council will do that!), I’ve had the impressionistic feeling that this is more common in BrE than AmE.

A quick scan of the BBC News front page against CNN.com/msnbc.com, as well as the New York Times and Washington post seems to agree with me.

Not that we don’t use this in American English… but it seems more frequent at the BBC page–at least today!

30 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Jonathan,
Yes it does seem as if the BBC is particularly fond of quote marks. The Health section provides a rich source of them, and almost exclusively as a disassociating device: Alcohol can ‘lessen’ arthritis. Ironically, they don’t use quote marks on occasions when they would be required in other genres, as in this headline from today’s site: Say fat not obese, says minister.

30 07 2010
English Raven

This one just in, Scott:

Increasing number of teachers embracing ‘Dogme’ language teaching approach

What to make of that one?


4 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

As a footnote to this thread, I’ve just been told about a book called The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks – you can read about it here:

Apparently it was based on a “blog”. 😉

1 09 2010

You know, the first thing I thought of when I read this post was the “Unnecessary” Quotes blog, so it was no surprise when I got down to the bottom of the comments and saw Scott’s mention of it.

Now, I wasn’t familiar with the term “greengrocers’ quotes” before today, but that handy denomination helps to explain the examples of “Unnecessary” quotes and the humor behind them: interpreting “greengrocers’ quotes” as “claim quotes” or “scare quotes”.

Churches are bad about this:


Also, as far as the asterisks that Jessica mentioned go, they seem almost exclusively to function, as you said, as “stage directions”–it’s a way people try to incorporate a suggestion of some movement or visual cue into faceless, text-based online interaction. Fulfilling the same function as, say, the “eye roll” emoticon.

But “of course” you all “probably” knew that. *rolls eyes* 🙂

11 06 2013

Hi is it possible to print your blog (not the readers’ comments) as a teaching text with copies for students (16)? I work in education and I am constantly being asked about scare quotes.

Thank you.

11 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

By all means, Kashmir.

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