Monday, 12 December 2011

Punctuation as a weapon : or, the inverted comma rampant

I've been becoming increasingly conscious recently of the use of language to make a point. I don't just mean the actual words used, but their context. Anyone with an Internet connection can broadcast their views to the world at the press of a button. I'm all for free speech, of course, but I'm not so keen on reading a lot of spitefulness.

One thing which seems to be happening quite a lot is the use of the inverted comma (quotation marks, sadly also known as "quotes" - ugh) to belittle and demean whichever group of people are the target of scorn. Thus, James Delingpole on public sector "workers" here and Tim Coates on the "profession" of librarianship here are trying to convey the ideas that people in the public sector do not actually do any work, librarians are not worthy of the adjective professional, &c.. Jacob Rees-Mogg's articles are chock-full of inverted commas, to the extent that it's quite difficult to see which bit of what he is saying you are not supposed to be taking at face value. (He sounds cheerful enough, though, so perhaps he isn't really having a go at anyone!). This blog by "categorically not the other one" captures his habit nicely.
Has the inverted comma become the weapon of choice in the blogosphere? Has it replaced terms such as "so-called"? I'd be interested in any other examples people come across - I've only mentioned a few which spring readily to mind, and I'm sure there are a lot more out there!


  1. Tim Coates is as much a friend to the English language as he is to libraries ...

    Jacob Rees-Mogg is ... Jacob Rees-Mogg ...

    James Delingople ...

  2. I'm quite strict with myself (when I remember to be). I use single quotes '' as shorthand for "this is a metaphor", and double quotes "" for actual quotations or implied speech, as above. 'Scare quotes' are just lazy journalism :-)

    (But as you can see, I don't mind the word 'quotes'.)

  3. I always associate this technique with mid-80s Smash Hits, where it was popularised by Tom Hibbert - but I think then it was used more to indicate gentle fun-poking of the "likes" of Ken from Bros and Ben Vol-au-Vont-Parrot from Curiosity Killed the Cat, rather than outright scorn and spite.

    I used it all the time myself when I was about 11, such was the "influence" of the "Hits", but if it's used seriously then I think it's just cheap and easy point-scoring in place of eloquence and well-written argument.

  4. I think the roots go deeper than the 1980s. It's been a feature of poor writing for much longer. I have an old copy of Fowler around somewhere. I bet it's condemned in there.
    Isn't the World Wide Mogg Blog a lampoon? If it isn't, then we're in a worse state than even I imagined.

  5. You have got me looking at Fowler now! He has a whole chapter on quotation-marks - excessive use. "Quotation-marks, like hyphens, should be used only when necessary" - which usually does seem to mean an actual quotation, rather than a way of drawing attention to something the writer doesn't like or wishes to belittle. As for the Mogg Blog, it does indeed also require quotation marks of its own (now inserted). Here is the original at work: