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When do I need quotation marks?

When should you use quotation marks? You probably know that you should use them around quotations or around the titles of some artistic works. (Books are an exception to the artistic works rule, except in AP style.) But other cases are open to debate.

I find that non-professional writers sometimes use quotation marks for emphasis, instead of their intended purposes. I don’t like that. Nor do most professional writers.

Garner’s Modern American Usage lists three times, in addition to when you’re identifying quotations or titles of artistic works, when you should use quotation marks:

  • when you’re referring to a word as a word, <the word “that”>, unless you’re using italics for that purpose
  • when you mean so-called-but-not-really <if he’s a “champion,” he certainly doesn’t act like one>
  • when you’re creating a new word for something—and then only on its first appearance <I’d call him a “mirb,” by which I mean…>

Some sources disagree with Garner and me on avoiding the use of quotation marks for emphasis, but urge discretion. Here’s what Amy Einsohn says in The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications:

Quotation marks may be used for emphasis or irony, but copyeditors should curb authors who overuse this device.

I’m okay with using quotation marks for irony. I believe that’s what Garner aims at in his so-called-but-not-really case. But I prefer to avoid using them for emphasis. In fact, I almost deleted Einsohn’s quote from this post because I dislike them so much.

You can make your own rules on this issue, but I suggest that create a style sheet to help you apply your rules consistently.

What do YOU think about quotation marks?

If you have strong feelings about the usage of quotation marks, please share. If you suggest a different set of rules, it’d be great if you could cite a source for your recommendation.

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

 

That vs. which: Which is right?

Writers often use “which” when they should use “that.” The reverse is also true. It took me a while to learn this myself. This post offers some guidance on your choices.

The “That” rule

“That” is for essential clauses. The sentence doesn’t make sense without the clause.

Take a sentence like the following:

Inflation that rises rapidly may hurt bond prices more than gradual inflation.

Omit “that rises rapidly” and you get “Inflation may hurt bond prices more than gradual inflation.” Does that make sense? No! Thus, “that” is required to reflect the presence of an essential clause.

The “Which” rule

“Which” is for nonessential clauses and requires at least one comma.

Consider the following example:

Inflation was rising rapidly, which was inflicting pain on bond holders.

Delete “which was inflicting pain on bond holders” and you still have a sentence that makes sense: “Inflation was rising rapidly.”

 The British exception

The British have different rules for the use of “which” and “that.” As Shea Ammon states in Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, they use both for essential clauses. However, they agree with Americans on using “which” for nonessential clauses.

 

For another take on which vs. that, read my post “The Which Trials” according to “Woe is I.” That post also contains links to more resources on which vs. that.

 

Note: The title of post was edited on Feb. 24, 2015, when I learned that “that” and “which” may not be considered pronouns in this context.

Do your grammar, punctuation, and usage affect your credibility?

Does the quality of your writing matter? It looks like it does. When I asked “Does a writer’s grammar, punctuation, or usage errors damage that writer’s credibility in your eyes?”, an amazing 100% of respondents said “yes” in response to the survey on my blog and in my newsletter.

Specifically, they gave the following answers to my multiple-choice question.

0%   No, I don’t notice errors
0%   No, I don’t care
26% Yes, but I forgive small mistakes, especially in social media posts
74% Yes, they damage the writer’s credibility

I imagine that my readers are more critical than the general population. Still, these numbers should make all of us, including me, pay closer attention to how we write.

Respondent comments on bad writing

As one respondent commented, “Having your reading disrupted by a misspelled word or badly written sentence is like having air suddenly let out of a balloon. It makes me question the writer as well as the content.” Another reader said, “it reflects poorly on the writer and shows lack of attention to detail.” On a similar note, one person wrote, “There’s always that nagging feeling: if they didn’t care enough to proofread this, where else are they cutting corners? I try to be charitable because I too make mistakes, but it really bugs me.”

In their comments, readers showed some tolerance for mistakes. Here’s one example, “To me, it shows the writer is not detailed enough to review their input before hitting “go” – drives me crazy. That being said, I hit the wrong key often when texting and sometimes miss it before sending, so I have a small tolerance for those sort of errors.”

Believe it or not, despite my weekly “Mistake Monday” feature on the Investment Writing Facebook page, I fall into the 26% of people who tolerate small mistakes, especially in social media.

The worst mistakes?

The second question in my survey asked, “What is the worst mistake that writers make? Why is this mistake bad?”

Popular answers included spelling mistakes, mistakenly using “it’s” as the possessive form of “it,” and failing to proofread.

Here are more answers to my question about the worst mistakes:

“It’s a toss-up between thinking they are texting and using texting acronyms and overloading their writing with technical jargon.”

“Writing with very little thought and planning… poor sequencing of ideas, incomplete sentences, stream of consciousness, no clear call to action. When that’s the output, why bother?”

“Since I read almost no fiction–in my job, I don’t have to because what I see and hear no writer could make up–I confine my comment to non-fiction. Embedding numbers inside paragraphs abuses most readers because it asks them to ‘see’ relationships between and among numbers that can be shown much more easily with charts and graphs.”

“Using too many words. I want to get the point, learn the lesson without reading useless words.”

Dave Spaulding on writing mistakes

I’m not the only person raising these questions in the world of investment management. You can read Dave Spaulding’s “Should GIPS verifiers correct grammar? Spelling?

When Dave sees mistakes, he recommends changes. In his blog post, he says, “On occasion, I’ve discussed this with our clients, and in every case the client has been very clear that they welcome my comments. Most want their materials to be as correct in all respects as possible.” That’s good news.

 

March 13, 2017 update: The original version of this post linked to my original survey. I updated the post to focus on the survey results, which I’d published in my monthly e-newsletter (click to subscribe).

5 Things to Stop Doing in 2016

To improve your communications in 2016, I propose five things you should stop doing. If you’re making New Year’s resolutions, consider some of the items on my list to improve your relationships with clients, prospects, and referral sources.

1. Sending emails with missing or poorly written subject lines

For starters, never send an email with an empty subject line. People like me often delete those emails, assuming they’re spam. Another subject line “don’t”: keeping the same subject line even after the topic has changed.

If you’re writing to request an action, put that action in your subject line.

If your email is simply an FYI, say that in your subject line.

Whatever the purpose of your email, communicate that in your subject line.

For more on emails, see “Top four email mistakes to avoid when you’ve got a referral” and “4 reasons your emails don’t get results.”

2. Publishing or sending any written communication without proofreading at least once.

Example of typo that I'd like to eliminate as part of my New Year's resolutions

Sigh. I missed this typo.

Mistakes, especially stupid mistakes, make people wonder about your intelligence and attention to details.

Even writer geeks make mistakes. I am the poster child for that. I was so excited about finding a Strunk and White grammar rap video, that I posted it to my blog without proofreading my post. Oops! An obvious typo sneaked in.

3. Not blogging because you think your writing isn’t good enough

If you have a valid reason to blog, you can find a way to make it work. Keep your blog posts short. Use audio or video, if you’re more comfortable in those media. You can improve your blog post writing skills with my financial blogging class.

4. Avoiding social media

Social media isn’t going away. Dip your toes in the water. Get on LinkedIn and connect with as many people as possible, even if your Compliance Department limits your activity. You may be surprised by what you discover. Already on LinkedIn? Check out Twitter. Here’s how I built my Twitter following, which currently consists of more than 11,000 followers.

5. Ignoring your most common writing mistakes

You have lots of company if you’re making “Bloggers’ top two punctuation mistakes.” If you’ve moved beyond those mistakes, you may benefit from my favorite online resources for grammar, punctuation, and word usage help.

Thank you, Dorie Clark for inspiring this post!

Clark’s “5 Things You Should Stop Doing in 2012” is a good read. What are your New Year’s resolutions related to writing and communications?

This blog post was edited on June 11, 2012 to correct a typo and in Dec. 2015 to update the post, which was originally published in 2012, for 2016.
Image courtesy of Prakairoj/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Refresh your grammar and usage skills with Mistake Monday

Test your editorial skills on Mistake Mondays! This weekly feature on the Investment Writing Facebook page displays samples of poorly written or inadequately proofread content for readers to critique.

Readers often come up with great suggestions for tweaking the content. You may find inspiration in their comments. At a minimum, you’ll receive a mini-refresher on how to write and edit well.

Here are some examples of items highlighted on Mistake Monday. If you can’t find the mistakes, maybe you should be reading the Mistake Monday posts.

 

 

 

Thank you, Mistake Monday commenters! You make Mistake Monday a fun learning experience.

 

P.S. I make some of these mistakes, too. It’s not easy proofreading oneself, especially in a time crunch.

P.P.S. Have a good example for Mistake Monday? Send it along!

What’s your favorite online resource for grammar, punctuation, and word usage questions?

Grammar, punctuation, and word usage questions come up every day–even for someone like me who prides herself on being a good writer.

We can all benefit from online resources that help us figure out answers to our writing challenges.

My three favorites: GrammarGirl, OWL, and Google

I often Google my writing questions.

But sometimes Google’s results aren’t on target or the sources don’t seem reliable. This is when I turn to GrammarGirl and Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL). Both are trustworthy sources that explain things clearly.

GrammarBook

Jane Straus’ GrammarBook website was brought to my attention by Jill Brogan of Martingale Asset Management after I originally drafted this post. I plan to visit this site more often. Although founder Jane Straus  passed away, her husband plans to continue her work.

Subscription-based resources

I use the hard-copy versions of the following two resources, so I imagine they’re worthwhile for organizations with budgets.

Your favorite online resource?

What’s YOUR opinion on the best online resource? Have you discovered new resources? Please share your new discoveries.

 

Note: This post has been updated since it originally appeared on Feb. 27, 2011.