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.