Use of Quotation Marks for Emphasis

by Bryan Lord

We all have seen what would seem to be out-of-place quotation marks around words on signs, flyers, menus, and the like. The intent of the punctuator is clearly to accentuate the word so adorned.

Many people laugh at these "emphasis quotes," because, when read in the ordinary way, they seem to indicate that the word in quotes is not to be taken literally. Just how old is that "fresh" fish, anyway? Is there some hidden cost in that "free" coffee? "Guaranteed," you say? Where's the fine print?

Others contend that these "emphasis quotes" are a fait accompli in English usage—their very abundance legitimizes them, and we should adjust our perceptions of quotation marks to include this function of providing emphasis.

It has been argued that there are already other ways, such as italics, to provide emphasis, but it is hard to refute the counter-argument that all punctuation marks serve more than one purpose, most, including quotation marks themselves, serving several. After all, italics can denote emphasis, but they are also used for foreign words.

Even those who support the acceptance of "emphasis quotes" will admit that they can produce ambiguity (Are there any "ladies" in the house?), but they see this as no obstacle to acceptance, since so many other ambiguities exist in English, ambiguities that we cope with better than we presently do this one because we are used to them. Others resist introducing a new, rich source of ambiguity.

The middle position seems to be that in some situations, especially where the writer or compositor has no other device available to denote emphasis, such as in making up a letterboard sign, scoffing is too strong a reaction to "emphasis quotes," and to read these quotation marks in a way other than that obviously intended by the writer shows inflexibility on the part of the reader.