The “so-called” quote

There are drawbacks to being the person with good writing skills, and one of them is that when you see bad writing in print, you want to beat your head against the wall. Or at least, I want to beat my head against the wall.

The latest incident concerns an article I wrote for a local paper about Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Shane Belcourt, who are performing in Thessalon tonight. They’re also doing workshops during the day. Kateri teaches people how to write stories they find difficult to tell.

When I saw the article, it said, and I quote:

From 10 a.m. until noon, Akiwenzie-Damm will lead workshop
participants in learning to approach “difficult” stories.

I did not put those quotes around “difficult”. I don’t know why my editor did, although I suspect that he was using them to emphasize the word. It’s a mistake I see all the time, and it makes me want to – well, you know.

I call this the “so-called” quote, because quotation marks used in this way don’t emphasize the words inside, but actually reverse the meaning and imply a level of sarcasm. In this case, it makes it sound like the stories can’t really be all that difficult.

If someone said, “Yes, she’s a real expert”, that’s different from, “Yes, she’s a real ‘expert’.” The first says that the person is good at what she does, the second that she only thinks so.

There are three ways to use quotation marks, or at least, three that I could come up with. (If you think of another, let me know!)

First, to indicate dialogue.

“This is an extremely demanding role,” said the actress.

Second, in an indirect quotation, to indicate where you are using the exact words of the person quoted.

The actress characterized the role as “extremely demanding”. (This shows that the opinion of the role is the actress’s, and not the writer’s, and that these are the actress’s exact words.)

Finally, quotation marks can be used to indicate sarcasm, rolling eyes or disbelief by reversing the meaning of the word or phrase in quotation marks.

The “extremely demanding” role of Lady Whosit is no more than a ten-second walk-on. (This indicates that the writer thinks “extremely demanding” is overstating the difficulty.)

I call this the “so-called” quote, because you could drop the quotation marks and substitute “so-called” and get the same effect. (The so-called extremely demanding role…)
Incidentally, I’ve put quotation marks around “so-called” because that’s my name for it – my exact words.

I’m pretty sure my editor didn’t intend to belittle the difficulty of the stories people want to tell, but by putting quotation marks around the word “difficult”, that’s precisely what he did.

It’s some comfort to me that a writer friend of mine commented on it with, “I thought that didn’t look like something you’d write!” My husband says if I’m going to write for publication, I need to get used to being edited by people who aren’t as obsessive about grammar, punctuation and so on as I am. He’s probably right. I’m going to try to learn to deal with it another way, because what I’m currently doing is giving me a huge headache.

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6 Responses to The “so-called” quote

  1. Father Steve says:

    My perfectly precious (no quotes) daughter is a professional copy editor. After all the many years when I edited her writing for school, the roles are now reversed and I send her the occasional piece of my own writing to be edited. She is (almost) always right, so I need not suffer the indignity which you describe. But you are oh-so right!

  2. Thank you! I know that the Sault Star isn’t well edited. (David says, “You knew that when you started to write for them.”) In a previous article of mine, my editor added a little background about the subject’s birth and childhood. I didn’t object to that, but I did object to the format: “Born in X, so-and-so’s family moved to the town of Y when he was ten…”

    I don’t believe, “Well, most people know what it means” is a good argument. But that’s me.

  3. Henry Troup says:

    There’s also what the english call “greengrocer’s quotes”-they don’t mean much of anything!

  4. Stan says:

    Quotation marks can also be used for nicknames, song titles, plays, short stories, journal articles, when referring to words as words, and when introducing a new or unfamiliar word. The ones you call “so-called” are generally known as “scare quotes”. I wrote a little about them here, if you’re interested. I can’t tell why quotes were placed around difficult in your article. Maybe to emphasise that the difficulty was one person’s assessment.

  5. ecreith says:

    Ah, yes – I forgot those uses, all legitimate. I think the editor really has no idea of the actual difficulty of the stories, and was simply attempting to emphasise the word. Although why he thought it needed emphasis is beyond me.

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