I can think of a few things off the top of my head that I hope never to use: math, a fire extinguisher, Pepto Bismol, and the flotation device on the bottom of my seat cushion on an airplane. In theory, all of these things are good to have or know about, but you hope you’re never in a situation where they’re necessary for your survival.
In the same way, it seems like people avoid using quotation marks correctly. And, rightfully so: these punctuation marks look like a pair of commas who have pumped themselves full of helium. But I try to look at it this way: quotation marks are up there to give your words a high five.
Let’s start with the basics. Use quotation marks around dialogue (i.e., something someone says). “I’m still upset Pluto is no longer a planet,” Humphrey remarked. This is an example of a direct quote, so it gets quotation marks. However, consider the following sentence. Humphrey remarked he was still upset Pluto is no longer a planet. This is an example of an indirect quote, so it doesn’t require quotation marks.
I like to think of quotation marks as T. rex fingers, demarcating the words inside as special -- kind of like the lucky underwear you only wear when you want to have an exceptionally awesome day.
So, what else gets the quotation mark treatment? In addition to dialogue, The Associated Press Stylebook, used by many newspapers, instructs us to put quotation marks around the titles of books, songs, television shows, computer games, poems, lectures, speeches and works of art. Do not, however, put quotation marks around the names of magazines, newspapers, the Bible or books that are catalogs of reference materials, A.P. says.
Finally, use quotation marks to indicate something is unusual, novel, ironic, or sarcastic. For instance: NASA continues to make us believe in the so-called “moon landing.” For the record, I didn’t say this, but I have a friend (let’s call him “Byron”) who thinks the moon landing is a hoax. Byron uses ironic and sarcastic quotation marks all the time when referring to the various conspiracy theories to which he subscribes.
Here’s the bottom line: you should learn how to use quotation marks correctly. They may not save your life, but well-placed quotation marks make the words inside them feel like they’re at a super-deluxe, exclusive syntax party. Fancy!
Connect with Grammar Guy Curtis Honeycutt at curtishoneycutt.com. Throw a grammar conundrum his way or share a pet peeve. (And please thank him for working with us to get his column back in the StarNews).