complex simplicity

This column is about quotes. Not famous or memorable quotes, like “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” or “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” but the quotation marks themselves, the ones used indiscriminately every day on badly-written signs for businesses, churches, and government.

Example #1: About a month ago, workers were repainting the roads around Veterans Park. Not wanting anything to spoil their efforts, they placed signs warning careless drivers away, while simultaneously providing themselves cover, should those line-making efforts not prove recognizably straight and true:

WET PAINT

KEEP OFF

“LINES”

Example #2: A couple of years ago, a local church posted an intriguing notice on its marquee, one that could have been a public introduction to a new staff member, a special appearance by a religious impersonator, or, perhaps most likely, a figurative call to the spiritually alienated to come and meet their savior:

“JESUS” IS HERE

Example #3: A nearby 7-11 has, for as long as I can remember, featured a sign at its entrance expressing apparent mock sympathy toward customers, and their full bladders:

NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS

“SORRY”

Most people in America don’t pay much attention to this sort of thing. They correctly use quotation marks to set off direct statements by other people, indicate the titles of short stories, poems, and songs, and draw attention to unfamiliar words. There is, however, a small segment of the population that uses quotation marks incorrectly, to show emphasis; if you saw nothing wrong with the three examples above, you may be a member of that club already. At the other end of the spectrum, there are grammar sensitives—people like writers, for example—who tend to notice these mistakes, and devote entire columns to the topic.

To address the issue directly, I’ll consider myself temporarily deputized by the grammar police, and simply say: People using quotation marks for emphasis, you are wrong. Or, in the interest of clarity among my intended audience, allow me to rephrase: You are “wrong.”

On the face of it, it’s not too big a deal. After all, people constantly misuse your and you’re, its and it’s, and have no idea how to use a semicolon, yet the world goes on. What compounds the error of misused quotation marks is that writers sometimes use quotation marks to indicate irony or skepticism; the Oxford Manual of Style calls them “scare quotes,” which “hold up a word for inspection, as if by tongs.”

The concept applies to spoken conversations too, in the form of “air quotes,” as popularized by Steve Martin, Chris Farley, and Mike Myers, among many others. But air quotes come and go in seconds, while written quotation marks stay, inviting suspicion and demanding further examination.

For example: a scientist is a person with scientific training or expertise who utilizes the scientific method to make new discoveries and verify claims, while a “scientist” is someone who has invented a perpetual motion machine, or a home-brewed concoction that cures cancer, or who just makes unproven claims about the dangers of the Covid-19 vaccine. I’m hoping you see the difference.

The strange thing about scare quotes is that they have almost the exact opposite effect of what we’re accustomed to seeing from our quotation marks. For journalists writing in newspapers like the Hamilton Post, quotations are the lifeblood of a story. They signify fact and truth, and even if the quote is classified as an opinion, it’s weighted with the knowledge that someone did say those words, on the record, with intent.

And yet, within those strict parameters—the fact that someone actually said this—there’s potential for abuse. At the Jersey Shore, the sign outside a pizzeria reads “A Place to Remember.” Who said that? In what context? Is it a place to remember because the food is good, or awful, or because some unforgettable, non-food related event once happened there?

Politicians have perfected the art of saying one thing and meaning another, but advocates of the practice can be found in positions of authority everywhere; as exercised, their quotation marks don’t mean, “This is exactly what I am saying,” but rather, “This is exactly what I am lying.” Quotation marks, once the hallmark of truth, have become—like so many things in the 21st century—a symbol of irony, disdain, and skepticism.

Given that, maybe there’s more to these “misquoted” signs than just sloppy punctuation. Maybe they’re accurate indicators of the time we live in, unintentionally training us to look for the message behind the message, in every message. Or maybe we’re too hyper-skeptical already, so much so that the moment someone put the word “vaccine” in quotes, half the country said, “No, thanks.”

And maybe the signs are just simple, welcome novelties—humorous distractions from the staid, boring traditions of written communication. That same trip to the shore featured a sign advertising “free” parking—does that not make it seem like the attendant is going to steal your car, or at the very least, demand a sizable cash contribution for “valet service”? Also sighted was a restaurant offering “live” lobsters, which makes me believe those lobsters had expired—in both senses of the word—and were perhaps being orchestrated like marionettes to appear yummy and “alive.”

As my word limit approaches, I wonder how this column will fare. “Maybe,” I hope aloud to my dog, thus entitling the use of quotation marks and a later, selectively edited excerpt, “this is the best quote column ever.” Or at least, it’s the “best” “quote” column “ever.” And you can quote me on that.

Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com, and his previous Hamilton Post columns can be read at communitynews.org. His latest work, “Call Waiting,” can be seen at idleink.org. His book Complex Simplicity collects the first 101 editions of this column, along with essays and material published elsewhere. It is now available at Amazon.com or Lulu.com for $25 (print) or $4.99 (ebook).

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