Why sneer quotes are the writer's enemy
This month, for the first time ever, someone else has written this blog. Joshua Parfitt is a trained journalist and now freelances as a digital news editor, content creator, sub-editor and writer. Summertime Publishing and Springtime Books are now among his clients.
When we work with our author clients we create a style sheet that sets down the rules regarding layout, style and spelling for the publication. Without this it is hard to stay consistent. One thorny issue is the handling of emphasis. Will we use bold, or italic, capitals, first letter capitals or quotation marks? What follows is an in-depth discussion of the use of single quotation marks...
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The quotation mark/inverted comma may look nothing more than an upside-down comma, but its origins are divine.
In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville described contemporary scholars’ usage of the Greek forefather to modern quote marks:
“Our copyists place this sign in the books of the people of the Church, to separate or to indicate the quotations drawn from the Holy Scriptures.”
Whether the common comma slipped out of place, had its destiny revealed in a dream or just got bored, we will never know.
But we owe them a great deal – quotation marks have bequeathed one of the most profound qualities upon otherwise squiggles on a page: authority.
As with everything in this ‘post truth’ era, however, authority has come under scrutiny and even disdain.
Did you miss it?
I just put the words ‘post truth’ in quotation marks – did you notice?
The use of single or double quotation marks around a word or phrase, rather than a complete sentence as above, is also known as a scare quote.
Not scary in a haunted-house sense, but let me explain to you why, as a writer, you should still watch out.
Editor Greil Marcus once described this usage of scare quotes as “a writer’s assault on his or her own words.”
(The usage of single quotation marks in this way are also known shudder quotes, quibble marks or, my personal favourite, sneer quotes.)
I too believe these pernicious inverted commas have everything to do with dismantling the very authority they were invented to portray.
As you may have noticed, earlier I quoted post truth without strictly quoting anything.
There was no according to research at the School of Oriental and African Studies to give academic back-up to my quotation… there was no as conspiracy theorists seeking to undermine the status quo say to offer an opinion… and there wasn’t even a simple as my granny says to tell you who’s responsible for the quote.
No one is taking credit for my quote or its meaning – not even me, the ‘author’!
See how I did it again?
Sneer quotes are also used by writers to question – or sneer – at the authenticity of a term without offering any more explanation than two (or four) lazy upside-down commas.
Does ‘author’ mean I’m a fake author? An ironic author? Or am I just wearing a funny hat? Sneer quotes are literature’s version of the boy who cried wolf – they draw attention but provide no knowledge.
Sneer quotes allow an author to make a judgement without explaining what’s wrong or even putting their name to said pseudo-judgement.
If writing is about taking abstract ideas and making them understandable and reproducible, then sneer quotes are the opposite: sneer quotes turn understandable and reproducible forms of communication back into abstract ideas.
Sneer quotes promote ambiguity; they let go an opportunity for an insight into the author’s world.
Sneer quotes should be every writer’s enemy.
This consecrated comma
At Summertime Publishing we believe in the divine origin of the quotation mark.
We find it interesting that Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich first coined the term ‘post-truth’ to talk about the Watergate scandal – I may have just Wikipedia-ed that, but you good writers out there should be doing the work for the reader, not dropping a sneer quote and exiting the sentence in a dazzled haze.
We also believe in calling a spade a spade – I’m not an ambiguous ‘author’, I’m a bloke who gets upset over 1,300-year-old upside-down commas.
(See how the lazy sneer quotes snatched an opportunity for a joke away from me?)
In sum, we believe that proper punctuation develops your writing, encourages ingenuity and shows you know your stuff.
And now that you know this, maybe you too will get upset at the misuse of 1,300-year-old upside-down commas – perhaps the scariest thing of all.
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer