Grammar Tip – Quotation Marks and Usage

Carol’s question: “I see a lot of people using quotes to highlight info. For example, all sports teams are encouraged to adopt a “tobacco-free” policy. I am under the impression quotes and single quotes are to be used sparingly, if at all, for anything that is not a direct quotation. But can you clarify?”

BizWritingTip response: First, let me say that one of my pet peeves is the incorrect use of single quotation marks. Single quotation marks are for material inside quoted material.

He said, “My favourite poem is ‘The Raven.’ ”
The project manager said, “Put the schedules inside the folder marked ‘May’ and send the entire report to the participants.”

Note: The exception to this rule is headlines in newspapers or magazines when spacing does not permit the use of double quotes.

Second, in addition to using these marks to indicate quoted material, you can use double quotation marks for terms your reader may not be familiar with.

Please send me your address as I want to send you the material by “snail” mail. (“Snail” is being used to indicate surface or non-electronic mail – not the “creepy-crawly.”)

Double quotes may also imply humour or irony, words used as words, and a deliberate misspelling.

Her great grandmother was on the “unsinkable” Titanic. (We all know the Titanic sank but, before it set sail, this was how the ship was described.)

Britain dropped the hyphen from “thank-you” about 18 months ago. (“Thank-you” is not being used in its regular sense.)

He wrote that his “grammer” is not a problem. (This is an indirect quote but, as we all know, the correct spelling of the word is “grammar.”)

Back to the original question, I am not sure why “tobacco-free” has quotation marks around it – unless the writer was trying to indicate something not right with the policy.

Another thought: There is a trend towards using italics instead of quotation marks to indicate unusual words. But this is a personal style issue – not a grammar one. Personally, I prefer quotation marks because I believe they are easier to read and make a stronger point.