We are currently rereading Louis Erdrich’s THE ROUND HOUSE for the book club. Among the many joys of this wonderful book is that there does not seem to be a single set of quotation marks in the whole book. Erdrich does not choose to set off dialogue with quotes, which can be confusing at times. But we are happy to put up with a little uncertainty in exchange for a vacation from quotation marks.
Practically every client we get sprinkles quotation marks throughout his or her manuscript like rain. This raises interesting questions about why it is that we as a writing society have this need to encase words in quotes and set them apart. Are we particularly ironic? Do we think we are so smart that we are constantly inventing new usages for words? Are we particularly heavy footed when it comes to emphasis? Rather than speculate, let’s look at the appropriate and not appropriate uses of quotation marks:
To Set off Direct Speech: When a character says something in a book, it should be set aside by quotes:
Mabel said, “It is raining outside so I will stay home. I was supposed to go the community center. But they can get along without me.”
“Good plan,” responded Jim.
What is not correct is to put quotes around every individual sentence a character utters, like this:
Mabel said, “It is raining outside so I will stay home.” “I was supposed to go the community center.” “But they can get along without me.”
No, no, no, don’t do this. It means your poor editor has to take all those quotes out.
To Show That You Are Referring to the Word Itself and Not its Meaning:
The word “quote” refers to those sets of double quotation marks.
To Set Aside Titles of Artistic Works: These days quotation marks are only used for pieces of larger works like short stories, poetry, book chapters, magazine articles, and album tracks or singles.
Book titles should be italicized.
If you confine yourself to the three uses of quotation marks above, you can’t go wrong. Here is where you can get into trouble with quotes:
To Show Sarcasm or Irony or to Show Unusual Usage: These are sometimes called scare quotes and we would like to scare you away from them.
They should be used sparingly, if at all, and definitely not every other paragraph. Scare quotes are like putting up a big stop sign in the narrative. They ask the reader to step out of what she or he is reading and consider this word in some fashion outside of what is going on in the book.
The CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, our editing Bible, cautions against both of these uses in section 7.58, “Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense […] They imply ‘This is not my term,’ or ‘This is not how the term is usually applied.’ Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.”
Did you read that? They irritate readers. What they do to editors is unprintable.
Quotes are NEVER used for Emphasis:
The sound of the crash was “loud.”
Her dress “clung,” if you know what I mean.
Yes, the reader does know what clung means. And the word “loud” means loud all by itself without quotes. Please don’t use quotes just to point to something so the reader will see it. The reader will get it anyway – and without being irritated.