QUOTE QUOTES UNQUOTE

Once upon a time, I believed there could be nothing simpler than quotation marks. They mean that the words they enclose are not my own words but someone else's. I repeat them -- perhaps to show how they are worthy of repetition; perhaps because I could not have said it better myself; perhaps to absolve myself of responsibility for words I would not have used -- but always to label them as not mine.

I was, however, disabused of this illusion when I encountered rampant functional illiteracy. The recklessness with which the unwashed pollute their discourse with meaningless quotation marks never ceases to amaze me.

The most fatuous (and ludicrous) misuse of quotation marks is for emphasis. Where this idea came from, I cannot imagine -- but there it is. A web site devoted to photographs of signs that commit this offense uses its name to parody the misdeed itself: The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. Here are a few gems culled from the collection:

DINO ITALIAN FOOD -- Taste the Quality of "Real" Ingredients
Sliding Panels -- Eze-Breeze -- MADE TO FIT YOUR "OPENING"
THIS IS AN OFFICE -- Absolutely NO Through Traffic -- "GO AROUND"
"HOMEMADE" FUDGE
"COW" MANURE -- $5.90
"DO NOT" Put Nothing HERE

The use of quotation marks to indicate that a word or phrase does not signify its literal or conventional meaning is legitimate, but annoying if overused. This has been named scare quotes, but that is misleading. The quotation marks are meant to call attention to the target word or phrase, not necessarily to frighten the reader.

Similar to this, but even more overworked, are the aptly-named sneer quotes. These indicate the scornful rejection of mistakes, euphemisms, or just plain lies. For example:

Hilary Clinton, while Secretary of State of the USA, said at a press conference that when she visited war-torn Bosnia in 1996 her plane landed under fire, and she had to duck and run for cover. But TV footage showed her disembarking with a smile, waving to the crowd, and strolling across the tarmac. When confronted with the evidence, she said: "I did misspeak the other day."

The word "misspeak" has been in use since the 14th century. Its literal meaning is mispronunciation of words, or speaking mistakenly (as an actor who forgets his lines) but it soon became a convenient euphemism for lying. In Ms. Clinton's case, she was doing what her husband did when he redefined sexual relations. If I were to relate this disgraceful fiasco, I would use sneer quotes to say: She said that she "misspoke."

Nuisances who pepper their writing with unnecessary quotation marks have invented silly ways to create the same effect while speaking. The silliest are hand quotes. These are virtual quotation marks, formed in the air with one's fingers. The hands are held shoulder-width apart at the eye level of the speaker. At the beginning and at the end of the target word or phrase, the index and middle fingers of both hands are flexed twice, as though inscribing quotation marks in the air.

A friend of mine once went through a phase in which he was addicted to this idiotic gesture. It got to the point where he could not say a single sentence without enclosing something in hand quotes. This made it difficult for him to converse with me during a meal, because he was continually laying down his fork and knife to free his hands for the hand quotes. I saw him once (but once was enough!) as he spoke on the telephone, tucking the receiver under his chin to free his hands, and performing hand quotes toward empty space. Luckily, the disease ran its course and he recovered, much to my relief.

Finally, there is the situation where a text is displayed on a screen as it is spoken. This occurs in PowerPoint Poisoning, otherwise known as Death By PowerPoint. It is also quite common on television, especially on cable news. Here the omnipresent quotation marks must be expressed simultaneously in speech and in writing. (In all the following examples I will use my supposed remark about Hilary Clinton.)

In rare cases, the speaker's tone of voice indicates that a word or phrase is not meant in its literal or conventional sense, and the printed text simply employs quotation marks correctly. It appears on the screen thus:

She said that she "misspoke."

The speaker, to make sure that the target word or phrase is understood as sneer quotes, may employ a practical but inelegant device which is both heard and seen:

She said that she quote misspoke.

Many speakers are not satisfied with this. They feel that the target word or phrase should be enclosed in quotation marks in their spoken text, in the same way as in a written text. For this purpose, they use the uncivilized, uncouth, ungainly, unseemly. and downright vulgar synthetic word: unquote. Does this refer to a stock that is no longer quoted on the stock exchange? Is it perhaps an ignorant distortion of the expression: end quote? Actually, it was introduced into the language by the poet e e cummings, that famous enemy of capital letters and normal syntax. For example, one of his poems begins:

why must itself up every of a park
anus stick some quote statue unquote to
prove that a hero equals any jerk
who was afraid to dare to answer "no"

(Note that the word that is a direct quote -- "no" -- is enclosed in normal quotation marks, but the word meant as a cynical misnomer -- statue -- is enclosed in the vulgar quote-unquote.) In this case the text appears on the screen thus:

She said that she quote misspoke unquote.

There are speakers for whom this is too complicated. They may find it difficult to decide where to insert what, but they at least know when they have arrived at the target word or phrase. They immediately unburden themselves of the whole accompanying apparatus. This appears on the screen thus:

She said that she quote unquote misspoke.

The typists who enter the text for display on the screen are apparently on an even lower level on the evolutionary scale. I saw on the TV screen once (but once was enough!) a barbarism that, in my opinion, constitutes the ultimate in illiterate ignorance:

She said that she quote on quote misspoke.

Mark Twain wrote, in a letter: quote All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure unquote.