Last week several friends and I did some emailing back and forth about a legitimate use of quotation marks that I had glossed over. Or you could say that I fudged it. So today I’m going to cover a legitimate but widely misunderstood way to use quotation marks.

A story might help. Last week my husband and I came across the word pusillanimous and realized we weren’t sure about the meaning. (I just checked the dictionary: it means “timid.”) I was annoyed because I remember struggling with pusillanimous when I took my SATs as a senior in high school. Some people never learn.

(Here’s another word I have to look up every time: nonplussed. Even though I know it means “surprised” and “confused,” I don’t trust myself.)

You probably noticed that I used quotation marks around “timid,” “surprised,” and “confused.” That’s because I had departed from the usual way of using those words. And that’s where we run into problems.

Writers often use quotation marks to signal an unconventional use of a word:

Many people mispronounce “nuclear” and “mischievous.”  CORRECT

But that doesn’t mean you can use quotation marks willy-nilly!

Dr. Caldon is researching the problem of nuclear waste.  CORRECT

With a mischievous smile, Sandra handed me the box.  CORRECT

What you don’t want to do – please, please! – is overuse this handy form of punctuation. Earlier in this post I said I’d fudged my previous explanations about quotation marks. Yes, that’s a departure from the usual meaning of fudge – but there’s no need to apologize for it.

I think observation is one of the best ways to learn how to use quotation marks (and to pick up many other writing skills). Pick some good role models and study them. You’ll learn a lot!



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